Chinese anti-corruption activist Xu Zhiyong goes on trial
New Citizens founder, who is accused of disrupting public order, stays silent in protest as US embassy calls for his immediate release
Associated Press in Beijing
theguardian.com, Wednesday 22 January 2014 10.52 GMT
The founder of a grassroots movement to boost accountability for China's officials has gone on trial on charges of disrupting public order, but stayed silent during the closed-door proceedings in protest, his lawyer said.
The trial of the New Citizens founder, Xu Zhiyong, reflects determination by President Xi Jinping's administration to quash the activists before they can challenge Communist party rule, even though their goals largely overlap with the party's stated intention to root out public corruption.
"If it is a crime to demand a clean government, to ask officials to declare assets and to demand equity in education, then how can this country have equality and justice?" said Du Guowang, an activist for education equity with no link to the movement. "This government has no confidence, but is fearful."
Xu has participated in small public rallies that have, among other issues, called for officials to declare their assets as a way of curbing graft – something party leaders have expressed willingness to consider, but have resisted.
Since April 2013, authorities have detained about 17 people linked to the New Citizens movement, putting three of them on trial in the south-eastern province of Jiangxi in late 2013. No verdict has been issued for the Jiangxi trials.
Wednesday's trial against Xu opened the second round of prosecution. At least six other activists will appear in court on Thursday and Friday in Beijing. Political and legal observers believe all will be found guilty and jailed for several years.
The US embassy in Beijing on Wednesday called for the immediate release of Xu, saying the prosecution was "retribution for his public campaign to expose official corruption and for the peaceful expression of his views".
More than a dozen diplomats from the US, EU, Britain, Canada and Australia turned up to attend the trial but were told the courtroom was too small to accommodate them, and that foreign nationals have no place in a case against a Chinese national, according to the diplomats.
January 22, 2014, 1:14 am
Report Details Overseas Accounts of Chinese Elite
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
Relatives of senior Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, above, are among those whose overseas holdings are listed in a new report.Jason Lee/Reuters Relatives of senior Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, above, are among those whose overseas holdings are listed in a new report.
Chinese elites have set up extensive offshore companies that allow them to conceal funds abroad, according to a new report from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The report, which is based on leaked documents covering thousands of tax haven clients, lists more than a dozen of China’s wealthiest people as well as relatives of top officials, including the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and descendants of Communist Party “red nobility.”
Mr. Xi has made cracking down on corruption and reining in officials’ displays of wealth among his top priorities since taking charge of China’s ruling Communist Party in 2012. The ICIJ report further exposes the financial success enjoyed by some family members of Chinese leaders and argues that the combination of wealth and power is a liability for the government at a time when the Chinese public is increasingly concerned about official privilege.
Minxin Pei, an expert on Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College, told the ICIJ that while such overseas wealth is not necessarily illegal, it is often tied to “conflict of interest and covert use of government power.” The report notes that such overseas companies can have legitimate business purposes and that their development was encouraged by foreign investors in China.
The report was released hours before the start of a trial for Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar accused of “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” He is one of several other activists who have called for public disclosure of officials’ assets. At least eight of them are going on trial this week in what is widely seen as an effort to shut down their independent anticorruption campaign, known as the New Citizens Movement.
Among the names listed in the leaked documents is Deng Jiagui, the husband of Mr. Xi’s older sister and a wealthy businessman. Records show that Mr. Deng is a half owner of a British Virgin Islands company, Excellence Effort Property Development, according to ICIJ. The other half is “owned by yet another BVI company belonging to Li Wa and Li Xiaoping, property tycoons who made news in July by winning a $2 billion bid to purchase commercial real estate in Shenzhen,” ICIJ reported.
The report said:
PricewaterhouseCoopers, UBS and other Western banks and accounting firms play a key role as middlemen in helping Chinese clients set up trusts and companies in the British Virgin Islands, Samoa and other offshore centers usually associated with hidden wealth, the records show. For instance, Swiss financial giant Credit Suisse helped [former Prime Minister] Wen Jiabao’s son create his BVI company while his father was leading the country.
The files come from two offshore firms — Singapore-based Portcullis TrustNet and BVI-based Commonwealth Trust Limited — that help clients create offshore companies, trusts and bank accounts. They are part of a cache of 2.5 million leaked files that ICIJ has sifted through with help from more than 50 reporting partners in Europe, North America, Asia and other regions.
The ICIJ is a project of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, which links journalists across the globe on investigative reporting projects. Working with media organizations including The New York Times, it has published reports based on the leaked documents that identified a range of prominent figures who have benefited from overseas accounts. Those include a former budget minister in France, a daughter of the former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and Azerbaijan’s ruling family.
Files on China, Hong Kong and Taiwan formed the biggest portion of the collection of 2.5 million leaked documents, ICIJ said, and a reporting team spent six months looking through those files. A mainland Chinese news organization that originally participated in the reporting was forced to withdraw from the project after government warnings, the ICIJ said. It did not name the news organization “to protect journalists from government retaliation.”
In a sign of the sensitivity with which such reporting is handled in China, the Guardian newspaper said its website was partially blocked in China on Wednesday after it ran a report based on leaked tax haven documents shared by the ICIJ. And the ICIJ said on Twitter that its website is now blocked “in many parts of China.”
The ICIJ said that more than 37,000 names from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are included in a database of tax haven documents and that they would be published online Thursday.
China tries to block reports on offshore holdings of its elite
Foreign ministry questions motive for articles about wealth in British Virgin Islands as media websites appear inaccessible
Tania Branigan in Beijing
theguardian.com, Wednesday 22 January 2014 10.12 GMT
China has sought to block and dismiss reports on the offshore holdings of relatives of top leaders, with a foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing suggesting "unconvincing" articles may have ulterior motives.
The reports, by the Guardian and others, based on leaked financial documents, showed that the brother-in-law of the president, Xi Jinping, and the son and son-in-law of the former premier Wen Jiabao were among more than a dozen family members of current or former leaders using offshore companies in the Caribbean.
The remarks came as the websites of the Guardian and other media organisations that ran the story appeared wholly or partially inaccessible in China; the site of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which obtained the British Virgin Islands leaks, seemed to be entirely blocked.
Speaking at a regular foreign ministry briefing in Beijing, the spokesman Qin Gang told reporters: "I am not aware of the specific circumstances. From the point of view of readers, the logic of some of the related articles is unconvincing, and it leads people to suspect the intentions behind it."
Asked if the government would follow up on the information in the reports, he said he had already answered questions, adding an idiom often translated as: "The innocent are innocent, even if they do not defend themselves; the impure will be impure, even if they do."
Repeated attempts to access the Guardian's story from China failed without a virtual private network. In the morning, some attempts to reach the site's front page were successful, and there was intermittent access to other pages. By afternoon, repeated attempts to reach the site were failing entirely.
Qin said: "Relevant departments of China carry out management of the internet in accordance with laws and regulations."
Earlier this month, the Guardian was briefly partially blocked before becoming accessible again.
The report that more than 21,000 clients from China and Hong Kong have made use of the Caribbean offshore havens is the latest revelation in a two-year initiative by the ICIJ, which has shared the leaked data from two companies in the British Virgin Islands with the Guardian and other international news organisations.
The website of the Spanish newspaper El País, another of the media partners, appeared to be inaccessible all day.
The ICIJ's Sina Weibo microblog account was disabled. Some Weibo users forwarded or posted the Chinese-language version of the report without commenting on it.
Reports on the holdings could be read in full on the websites of France's Le Monde, Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung and Canada's CBC News in the morning, but by afternoon repeated attempts to access the sites were unsuccessful; Australia's Global Mail also appeared blocked.
The wealth of Chinese officials and their families has become a subject of growing interest, particularly in light of Xi's campaign for austerity and against corruption since becoming leader.
Chinese activists whose campaigns have included a push for financial transparency, with street protests calling on officials to declare their assets, have faced a punishing crackdown.
Xu Zhiyong, the best known member of the New Citizens Movement, stood trial in Beijing on Wednesday, and other members of the movement will be tried on Thursday and Friday.
Journalists attempting to report from outside the court were manhandled and made to leave the area by unidentified men.
The websites of Bloomberg and the New York Times have been blocked in China since they reported on the onshore assets of relatives of leaders, including those of Xi and Wen, in 2012. They have also been unable to obtain visas for new reporters.
Austin Ramzy, who has worked on the mainland for several years and sought to transfer to the New York Times from another publication, will have to leave when his current visa runs out at the end of the month unless the authorities change course.
01/22/2014 09:49 AM
Hope in Montreux?: A Starting Point for Peace in Syria
By Christoph Reuter
Violence in Syria has been appalling in the run up to this week's peace talks in Switzerland, where rebel and government representatives are to sit down together. Secret meetings in recent months give cause for hope.
A bag filled with pieces of bread is dangling from a pole jutting from a house in the Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk. Rebels control the neighborhood, but the Syrian army has had it sealed off from the outside world for months. The rebels suspect that the bag of bread is bait, part of trap designed to lure starving Yarmouk residents out into the open -- and into the range of fire of army snipers.
Dozens have already died of starvation in Yarmouk. The last remaining cats, birds and dogs were eaten long ago. Cactus leaves and grass are still growing. Bread would be a luxury.
Putting out bait for starving civilians is a despicable tactic. But barbaric methods have been commonplace in the Syrian war for some time, partly because it's a conflict that neither side can currently win. To resolve the stalemate, representatives of the government and the rebels will begin seeking a political solution in talks set to begin on Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland. There have also been talks behind the scenes, both between the two sides and between the United States and Russia. Still, civilians are now even worse off than before.
"It's to be expected that both sides would try to strengthen their initial position by military means prior to negotiations," says a Western diplomat in Washington involved in the preparations for Montreux. But the wave of attacks being launched by the army, which has been dropping so-called barrel bombs -- barrels filled with explosives and metal fragments -- onto the city of Aleppo from helicopters, is pure terror, adds the diplomat.
'Creating Political Leverage'
"Most of all, by doing this (President Bashar) Assad is making it all but impossible for the opposition to get to the negotiations. It's the most murderous form of creation of political value," says the diplomat. The rebels, he says, will lose their popular support if they negotiate with a regime that is taking such a drastic and murderous approach.
Washington and London, on the other hand, have threatened to freeze the already scant aid they provide to the opposition should they not appear. After almost three years of violence, 130,000 dead and appeals that fall on deaf ears, it seems that many in the West view the mere fact that the conference is taking place as a success, regardless of its outcome. "The important thing is to start negotiating," says a German diplomat. "No one has had any better ideas."
Talks notwithstanding, top regime officials in Damascus are beginning to feel nervous, which likely has to do with the precipitous decline of the al-Qaida linkedIslamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS). Thus far,Assad has tried to impress upon Western governments and intelligence services that his regime is the lesser evil. His mantra has been that if his regime falls, al-Qaida will take over the country.
For a few months at the end of last year, it did seem as if the ISIS combatants could gain control over large parts of northern Syria. But then, after fierce fighting in January, the Syrian rebels forced ISIS out of Idlib in northwestern Syria. Now the rebels continue to fight on two fronts: against Assad's troops and against the al-Qaida extremists who have retained control over the provincial capital of Rakka.
Regime troops, on the other hand, have conspicuously avoided attacking the al-Qaida linked fighters. When ISIS was fighting the rebels in the towns of Jarabulus and Anadan, for example, Assad's air force bombed the rebel positions but not those of the al-Qaida fighters. In addition, government aircraft have for weeks been heavily bombarding residential neighborhoods in Aleppo, and yet neither the local ISIS headquarters nor the organization's other strongholds have been struck, despite being clearly recognizable from the air.
What the threat posed by the al-Qaida affiliate has done is prompt the large rebel groups in Syria, encouraged by Saudi Arabia, to join forces.
Following what is expected to be an unsuccessful first round of negotiations, several options will be available. If Washington adheres to its strategy of forcing the opposition to reach an agreement with Assad, the war will continue. Regime forces are playing for time and expect to emerge victorious, while the rebels feel newly strengthened by their unity. No one is likely to give up soon.
A second option has quietly taken shape on Lake Geneva. Since October, influential Syrians on both sides have been meeting at Château de Bossey near Geneva to search for solutions. The talks were arranged by the Swiss Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which has explored compromises in Sudan, Indonesia, Nepal and other countries, with varying degrees of success -- and without the crippling effect of government negotiating machinery. United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, an American, and UN Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, of Algeria, have been consistently in the picture during the current talks.
It was a tricky experiment in which people close to the regime and the rebels sat face-to-face and eventually found common ground.
"We fought on the first day, talked to each other on the second day and went shopping together in Geneva on the third," says one participant. "Then a former adviser to Assad said, okay, we're going to fight each other to the last building in Damascus, but what then? The country will be ruined, and neither side will emerge victorious or be able to stop fighting."
The killing will only end, says the man, if the United States and Russia come to an agreement. And the fighting is unlikely to stop unless the two nations exercise their authority, partly because foreign interests dominate the situation in Syria.
A Starting Point?
"The Saudi Arabians and the Qataris are using our revolution in their proxy war against Iran," says one of the opposition members at the Swiss chateau.
"The Iranians and Hezbollah treat us like their colony," complains a delegate for the regime, which is being supported by Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah, and would lose the war without their military aid.
While negotiations were underway at Château de Bossey, there were also talks between Washington and Moscow. Both sets of negotiations revolved around the same model for achieving a peace treaty: The Syrian government, army and notorious security forces would remain in place, while military power would be transferred to an extremely difficult merger of the army and rebel groups. Assad would be sent into exile or would lose his effective power. It would be a starting point.
The decision as to whether to pursue the model apparently lies currently with Moscow. An insider familiar with the talks says that to secure the Kremlin's approval, any future Syrian regime would likely have to guarantee continued military cooperation with Russia and the repayment of billions in Syrian debt. It would also have to ensure that an agreement reached with Moscow in late December on the exploration of oil and natural gas deposits off the Syrian coast be upheld.
It is not very likely that all parties will agree to this model. According to a member of the Damascus elite who emigrated from Syria, there is one potential obstacle: "The intelligence chiefs won't allow Assad to leave, unless they receive the same exile guarantees for themselves and their families."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
US and Russian co-operation holds key to hopes of progress over Syria
Obduracy and absence means suffering of ordinary people likely to continue as sides in brutal conflict meet for Geneva II talks
Ian Black in Montreux
The Guardian, Tuesday 21 January 2014 22.04 GMT
International efforts to bring peace to Syria after almost three years of war get under way in Switzerland on Wednesday with near-zero expectations of a political breakthrough but slight hope of a deal on confidence-building measures and improved access for humanitarian aid on the ground to relieve the suffering of millions of ordinary people.
Prospects for progress depend on co-operation between the US and Russia. On Tuesday night the Kremlin revealed that Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin had had a "businesslike and constructive" phone conversation about Syria. Their foreign ministers, Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry, will meet later in Montreux. Agreement between the two countries on dismantling Syria's chemical weapons programme last September was one of the few diplomatic achievements of the crisis so far.
The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, stated on his website his belief that the talks have little hope of success. "Because of the lack of influential players in the meeting, I doubt about the Geneva II meeting's success in fighting against terrorism ... and its ability to resolve the Syria crisis," Rouhani said. "The Geneva II meeting has already failed without it even being started."
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general who got off to a bad start on Monday when he was forced to withdraw a last-minute invitation to Iran, is chairing the peace conference – known as Geneva II even though it is taking place in nearby Montreux. Tight security arrangements were in place to protect Kerry, Lavrov, Britain's William Hague and dozens of other western and Arab foreign ministers meeting at an opulent lakeside hotel.
Walid al-Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister leading his country's delegation, will be meeting many of his counterparts for the first time since the bloodiest and longest crisis of the Arab spring erupted in 2011. Estimates of the death toll range from 100,000-136,000. Two million Syrians are now refugees and millions more displaced and in need all over the war-torn country.
The Middle East has been destabilised by a conflict which has shaken one of the most authoritarian regimes in the region, but not brought it down, and has unleashed a vicious wave of sectarianism. Evidence of organised killings and torture in Syrian prisons in a legal report published by the Guardian and CNN was a grim reminder of large-scale repression and human rights abuses in Damascus.
Ban rescinded his invitation to Iran on the grounds that it had not publicly committed to the conference goal of agreeing a transitional governing body for Syria by the mutual consent of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition groups fighting to overthrow him.
Iran is Assad's most important regional ally but he also enjoys strong backing from Russia. The Syrian opposition, by contrast, enjoys wholehearted support only from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. The US and other western countries oppose Assad but are increasingly alarmed by the prominence of al-Qaida-type groups in rebel ranks which have been accused of committing atrocities.
The US was unhappy at the prospect of Iranian participation, as was the main western-backed rebel group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) which threatened to boycott the talks unless Ban backed down. For several hours the conference teetered on the brink.
Iran blamed the US for the confusion. "We regret that Ban Ki-moon has withdrawn the invitation under pressure," the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told reporters in Tehran on Tuesday. "It is also regretful that Mr Ban does not have the courage to provide the real reasons for the withdrawal."
The last-minute row seemed to symbolise the disarray in international responses to the 34-month crisis. "Priceless to see US officials, who've blundered all along on Syria policy, mad at Ban Ki-moon's Iran blunder," said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Myopia/incompetence all around."
The point of Geneva II is to pick up where Geneva I, held in June 2012, left off. But there is no sign of readiness by any of the Syrian parties to make substantive concessions. Assad has repeatedly said he will not step down and has spoken of standing for president again later this year. Those opposition groups that are prepared to negotiate insist he must go and cannot play a role in any transition.
"We will not accept less than the removal of the criminal Bashar al-Assad and changing the regime and holding the murderers accountable," Badr Jamous, SNC secretary general, said in Montreux. The majority of the armed groups in Syria, especially Islamist ones backed by the Saudis, oppose any talks.
Western diplomats admit it is hard to see how the impasse between regime and opposition can be broken. The best hope is that pressure by their respective supporters will keep both at the negotiating table. "If Geneva II is going to work it will take a long time," said one senior official. "We've felt the absence of any process since Geneva I. It is hard for the opposition because they are constantly looking over their shoulders at the armed groups while atrocities and the terrible humanitarian situation continue."
Syria's continuing international isolation was graphically underlined on Tuesday when the plane flying Muallem and fellow delegates to Switzerland was reportedly temporarily "prevented from refuelling" after it landed at Athens airport. The apparent reasons was that the Greeks were concerned about breaching EU sanctions on Syria.
Wednesday's session will be long on formal speeches and short on action. The signs are that Syria and Russia will try to turn the one-day conference into a forum for condemning terrorism, while the US, the west, the Arabs and Syrian opposition focus on Assad's human rights abuses.
If there is drama it is likely to come on Friday when the Syrian parties are due to meet for the first time at the Palais des Nations in Geneva under the chairmanship of Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian mediator representing the UN and the Arab League. His predecessor, Kofi Annan, resigned in frustration.
The opposition team will be led by the SNC president, Ahmad al-Jarba, who last weekend won a vote by the narrowest of margins to attend the conference. UK officials are trying to persuade other Syrian opposition groups, currently boycotting, to join and to present a more united front.
But the signals from Damascus have not been encouraging. Only days ago Syria's national reconciliation minister, Ali Haidar, warned: "Don't expect anything from Geneva II. Neither Geneva II, not Geneva III nor Geneva X will solve the Syrian crisis. The solution has begun and will continue through the military triumph of the state."
Aid agencies say they hope that even if there is no progress on Syria's political future, the talks can help alleviate a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. "Political alliances of self-interest trap homeless Syrians in diabolical living conditions or in states of staggering despair," said Leigh Daynes, director of Doctors of the World UK. "They cannot wait any longer for the political settlement that is needed to end this unacceptable, shocking cycle of violence."
From jazz to diplomacy
Montreux is an hour's drive from Geneva, home to UN headquarters. Hotels in Geneva were already fully booked for a luxury watchmakers' convention when the long-delayed date for the Syrian peace conference was fixed.
Overshadowed by Geneva - where negotiations on Iran's nuclear programme saw a dramatic breakthrough last November - Montreux has not featured memorably in the annals of diplomacy since 1936, when the Montreux convention gave Turkey control over the Bosphorus strait and the Dardanelles, and regulated the transit of warships. These days the town is perhaps best known for its international jazz festival. The media centre is named after the US trumpeter Miles Davis. The town also boasts a statue of Queen singer Freddie Mercury, who lived here.
Syria accuses the west of pouring arms into the hands of terrorists
Foreign minister Walid al-Moallem delivers provocative speech at start of Montreux talks
theguardian.com, Wednesday 22 January 2014 10.47 GMT
The Syrian government has accused the west of backing terrorism in Syria in a defiant opening address at the start of long-awaited talks in the Swiss resort of Montreux.
In provocatively lengthy speech, Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said: "The west claims to fight terrorism, but it secretly feeds terrorism."
He urged the west to stop "pouring arms" into Syria, warning that if it failed to do so the near three-year conflict in Syria would spread to neighbouring countries. "We have come [to the talks] to prevent the collapse of the Middle East," Moallem said.
He also accused the Syrian opposition of being traitors.
The belligerent tone of the speech underlined how difficult it will to reach a diplomatic breakthrough at the talks.
Moallem repeatedly ignored requests to cut short his speech by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who chaired the session. "I have the right to give the Syrian version here," he told Ban after one intervention.
Ban had urged speakers to speak for around seven minutes. Moallem's address lasted over half an hour.
Moallem also defied Ban's request for speakers to refrain from making accusations against participants at the conference. And he signalled that Syria would resist attempts to set up a transitional government, as set out in the Geneva I communique of 2012.
Addressing his US counterpart, John Kerry, Moallem said: "No one, Mr Kerry, has the right to withdraw legitimacy of the [Syrian] president other than the Syrians themselves."
In his opening remarks, Kerry said Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, could have no place in a transitional government because he had lost legitimacy.
"We see only one option: negotiating a transition government born by mutual consent," Kerry said. "That means that Bashar al-Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is no way, no way possible, that a man who has led a brutal response to his own people can regain legitimacy to govern."
The Syrian opposition leader, Ahmad Jarba, called on the Syrian government immediately to sign up to the Geneva I agreement, which includes the establishment of transitional government.
He also said new photographic evidence, published by the Guardian, of the torture of detainees allegedly committed by Syrian government forces, was similar to crimes by the Nazis.
"The pictures of torture are unprecedented except in the Nazi camps during the second world war," he told the talks.
Syrian officials could face war crimes charges after a military police photographer defected and provided evidence showing the systematic killing of 11,000 detainees, according to three lawyers who examined the files.
Jabra said Assad was responsible for crimes against humanity.
Systematic killing evidence in Syria just tip of iceberg - aid agencies
International bodies say evidence of execution of 11,000 detainees in regime jails comes from just one area of Syria
The Guardian, Tuesday 21 January 2014 18.46 GMT
The cache of evidence smuggled out of Syria showing the "systematic killing" of 11,000 detainees in Syrian jails may only be the tip of the iceberg, international aid agencies have said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, UN bodies and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly complained of having next to no access to detainees and being stonewalled by Syrian authorities despite repeated requests to visit infamous detention sites, such as Sayednaya prison in Damascus.
They said Monday's report by three eminent international lawyers that at least 11,000 victims have been killed while in detention represents numbers in only one part of the country.
"All I know after years of trying to get access is that this is likely to eventually shock the world," one senior official from an international body told the Guardian, on condition of anonymity. "What we have seen in the [war crimes lawyers'] report broadly reflects what we have pieced together over the past few years."
Syrian activists say an estimated 50,000 detainees are unaccounted for. Tens of thousands of Syrians have been held in the country's infamous detention centres and released, often after months of deprivation and torture.
Monday's revelations drew widespread condemnation and were held up by the lawyers – all of whom have experience in prosecuting war crimes under international law – as "compelling" evidence in any legal forum. Amnesty International said the evidence should be central to the first face-to-face talks since the war began between opposition and regime officials, due to start in Switzerland on Wednesday.
Philip Luther, of Amnesty, said: "If confirmed, these would be crimes against humanity committed on a staggering scale. It certainly raises the question once again why the security council has not yet referred the situation in Syria to the prosecutor of the international criminal court.
"Geneva II must demand the disclosure of the fate of all persons subjected to enforced disappearance, secret detention or abduction, including civilians, soldiers, fighters and suspected informers."
Most of the 55,000 images taken of the victims were shot by one official photographer. Other photographers are attached to security units elsewhere in the country and are likely to also have been asked to provide visual evidence of deaths.
Each main city in Syria has numerous large prisons, off limits to all but elite military and security units but known to hold large numbers of detainees.
Syria has one of the most extensive state security systems in the Middle East. Before the uprising citizens feared the pervasive reach of more than 15 agencies, which was supplemented by the eyes and ears of the Ba'ath party, whose members were well-attuned to dissent against President Bashar al-Assad and his senior officials.
Since the first stirrings of uprising in March 2011, security chiefs have been busier than ever. The military intelligence, air force intelligence, and politicalsecurity branches have been among the most active, detaining large numbers of citizens, especially in areas held by opposition fighting groups. Syrian rebels and foreign jihadists have also been detained.
International bodies in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have reported they are overwhelmed by the number of families reporting the detention of their relatives. The full scale of the brutality inside Syria's prisons, they say, may never be known.
Refugees outside Syria talk frequently about missing relatives. Conversations in recent months have seemed increasingly desperate, as those who have fled Syria have ever-decreasing means of finding information about those they left behind.
"They came to take him in June," said Subhi Ahmed, a refugee from Aleppo now living in Beirut, of his son, Mohammed Ali. "It was the air force intelligence and we don't know where he is now. We have not heard a word. We went to the prison before leaving Syria and we have called many times. There is nothing."
Those who have been released from such facilities have told the Guardian and international investigators of the widespread use of summary executions. Detainees have also spoken of torture being routine. In a 2012 report Amnesty International itemised 31 methods of torture that it said were regularly used on prisoners. Figures complied by aid agencies suggest the number of detainees may be more than four times higher than the accepted figure.
The most rigorous process to establish a precise number has been conducted by Razan Zeitouneh, a Syrian activist and human rights lawyer who worked with the Violations Documentation Centre – an organisation that has gathered figures on Syrians in detention since the start of the uprising. Until she too disappeared late last year, Zeitouneh's group had accounted for more than 47,000 missing citizens. Zeitouneh was seized from an opposition-held district near Damascus. Unlike the bulk of those whose cases she documented, Zeitouneh is believed to have been seized by jihadist groups. She has not been heard from since.
In Aleppo early last year a Guardian investigation uncovered evidence of executions carried out in two regime intelligence bases in the west of the city. All of the victims had travelled from rebel-held east Aleppo. Several of those who had been released recounted their stories.
One of them, Abdel Rezzaq, 19, was detained in an air force intelligence prison. "I was living in Bustan area, working as a carpenter," he said. "I went downtown [in west Aleppo] to buy a falafel sandwich. The military caught me and beat me. They said I am with the Free Syria Army. They beat me for eight days day and nights and demanded I confess.
"I was arrested on 10 October and stayed [in prison] for about three months. Before I left the prison they took 30 people from isolation cells and killed them."
Rezzaq said he was being held within earshot of solitary confinement cells and the area where he alleges prisoners were taken and executed. "They handcuffed them and blindfolded them and they were torturing them till they died. They poured acid on them. The smell was very strong. Then we heard gunshots. The next day they put me and some of the others in front of men with guns, but they didn't shoot. They freed me later that day."
Archaeologists find remains of previously unknown pharaoh in Egypt
Discovery of 3,600-year-old body of King Woseribre Senebkay confirms existence of dynasty
Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
theguardian.com, Wednesday 22 January 2014 12.25 GMT
The 3,600-year-old remains of a previously unknown pharaoh have been discovered in southern Egypt, the country's antiquities ministry has announced.
The discovery of King Woseribre Senebkay is the first firm evidence of a forgotten pharaonic dynasty whose existence archaeologists had suspected but never proved.
Senebkay's tomb appeared to have been sacked by ancient looters, with his mummified casing ripped apart, and some of the tomb's decorations removed. But archaeologists from the University of Pennysylvania were able to piece his skeleton back together earlier this month, before deciphering his name from a section of hieroglyphics written inside the tomb. Further analysis revealed Senebkay was tall for his time at 1.75 metres (5ft 8in), and died at some point in his late 40s.
It was the first time the team had heard of the pharaoh, according to Josef Wegner, the dig's lead archaeologist.
"We were pretty puzzled for two days," Wegner told the Daily Pennsylvanian.
"It was a king's name that didn't appear anywhere else in history, so we didn't know who he was at first."
Pharaoh Senebkay hieroglyphics Hieroglyphics in the tomb showing Senebkay's name. Photograph: Photograph: Egyptian ministry of antiquities
Archaeologists say Senebkay's discovery confirms for the first time the existence of a third dynasty of pharaohs that ruled a central area between Egypt's northern and southern kingdoms at around 1,600BC. The two latter kingdoms were reunited in the century that followed – but the presence of a third dynasty suggests that their amalgamation may have been more complex than initially thought.
The Danish archaeologist Kim Ryholt first theorised about the lost dynasty's existence in 1997, but until now no physical evidence had been found.
The small size of Senebkay's tomb may indicate his dynasty's lack of financial clout, Wegner said in a statement released through the antiquities ministry. Some of the tomb's contents may have been recycled from earlier tombs. Its modest size may have also led the legendary Egyptologist Flinders Petrie to forgo its excavation as long ago as 1902, thinking it was unimportant.
Carthaginians sacrificed own children, archaeologists say
Graves holding tiny cremated bones confirm accounts dismissed as Greek or Roman black propaganda, study shows
The Guardian, Tuesday 21 January 2014 18.19 GMT
Just as ancient Greek and Roman propagandists insisted, the Carthaginians did kill their own infant children, burying them with sacrificed animals and ritual inscriptions in special cemeteries to give thanks for favours from the gods, according to a new study.
"This is something dismissed as black propaganda because in modern times people just didn't want to believe it," said Josephine Quinn, a lecturer in ancient history at Oxford, who is behind the study, with international colleagues, of one of the most bitterly debated questions in classical archaeology.
"But when you pull together all the evidence – archaeological, epigraphic and literary – it is overwhelming and, we believe, conclusive: they did kill their children, and on the evidence of the inscriptions, not just as an offering for future favours but fulfilling a promise that had already been made.
"This was not a common event, and it must have been among an elite because cremation was very expensive, and so was the ritual of burial. It may even have been seen as a philanthropic act for the good of the whole community."
Argument has raged on the subject since cemeteries known as tophets – after the biblical account of a place of sacrifice – were excavated in the early 20th century on the outskirts of Carthage in modern Tunisia, and then at other Carthaginian sites in Sicily and Sardinia. The graves held tiny cremated bones carefully packed into urns, buried under tombstones giving thanks to the gods. One has a carving which has been interpreted as a priest carrying the body of a small child. Some archaeologists and historians saw the finds as proving ancient accounts of child sacrifice; others insisted they showed tender respect for cherished children who died before or soon after birth.
Quinn and her colleagues, a group of Punic archaeologists and historians from Italy and the Netherlands, who publish their findings in the journal Antiquity – where the argument has been rumbling on for several years – completely reject the latter theory.
"The inscriptions are unequivocal: time and again we find the explanation that the gods 'heard my voice and blessed me'. It cannot be that so many children conveniently happened to die at just the right time to become an offering – and in any case a poorly or dead child would make a pretty feeble offering if you're already worried about the gods rejecting it."
"Then there is the fact that the animals from the sites, which were beyond question sacrificial offerings, are buried in exactly the same way, sometimes in the same urns with the bones of the children."
Although hundreds of remains were found, there were far too few to represent all the stillbirth and infant deaths of Carthage. According to Quinn, there were perhaps 25 such burials a year, for a city of perhaps 500,000 people.
The Roman historian Diodorus and other ancient historians gave graphic accounts of Carthaginian child sacrifice: "There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping towards the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire."
Diodorus even said that some citizens who bought children from poor people and reared them specially for sacrifice believed misfortunes had resulted because they had not sacrificed their own offspring.
The argument has been passionate for years, with scientists often reaching opposed conclusions from the same bone fragments: four years ago a group of scientists published a paper saying the cremated remains did not indicate infant sacrifice.
Now in the same issue as Quinn's research, Antiquity is publishing a new paper on the same bones, insisting that the earlier study got the science of burnt infant bones wrong, and therefore greatly overestimated the number who died before birth rather than being murdered in infancy.
Quinn said many of her academic colleagues were appalled by her conclusions.
"The feeling that some ultimate taboo is being broken is very strong. It was striking how often colleagues, when they asked what I was working on, reacted in horror and said, 'Oh no, that's simply not possible, you must have got it wrong.'"
"We like to think that we're quite close to the ancient world, that they were really just like us – the truth is, I'm afraid, that they really weren't."
Giant rats put noses to work on Mozambique's landmines
Landmine-detecting rats weigh as much as a domestic cat and are light enough to cross terrain without triggering explosives
SciDev, part of the Guardian Development Network
theguardian.com, Wednesday 22 January 2014 11.37 GMT
Giant rats put noses to work on Mozambique's landmines
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IxU-MZ12VE
A small army of landmine-detecting rats is to be redeployed in Mozambique in a push to meet a deadline to have the country declared free of mines this year.
Belgian non-governmental organisation Apopo trains African giant pouched rats to sniff out the explosives in landmines by conditioning them to associate the scent with rewards of food.
The rodents, which weigh about as much as a small domestic cat, are light enough to move over terrain without setting off the mines. They are followed by a team of mine-removal experts with metal detectors.
Last year, Apopo received international funding of $4.5m (£2.7m) from various donors and cleared 618 acres of mined land in Mozambique. This year it is redeploying 78 rats to continue the work.
Eradicating landmines from the country this year would mean Mozambique would fulfil its obligations under the Ottawa treaty, an agreement it signed in 1997 and which came into effect in March 1999. Signatories were required to clear all mines from their land within 10 years, but Mozambique was given a five-year extension in 2009. In December, the country requested a further 10-month extension, which would allow it to complete the work by New Year's Eve 2014.
Tesfazghi Tewelde, manager of Apopo's mine-clearance programme in Mozambique, says he hopes the country will meet this latest deadline, since there is only an area the size of 1,400 football pitches left to clear.
Mozambique is in a strong position to complete the demining operation, he says, thanks largely to the country's National Institute for Demining, which co-ordinates the efforts of several mine-clearing organisations.
Mozambique experienced 16 years of civil war between 1977 and 1992. Although the fighting has stopped, the tens of thousands of landmines left behind continue to claim lives.
"Although the number of accidents drops as we get closer to the end, where there are landmines, the threat is real as people are still being killed or maimed," Tewelde says.
Apopo has discovered and safely destroyed nearly 2,500 landmines in the country as well as more than 14,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance, small arms and ammunition, and returned approximately 2,001 acres to local communities.
"The target is not the number of landmines, rather it is to clear the contaminated area and give back to the people," Tewelde says. "Whether [landmines] are few or many, the threat is the same."
The rats undergo nine months of training, learning to sniff out the explosives in old landmines buried underground. They scratch the ground to alert their handlers to mines.
The rodents are quick learners and easy to work with, according to Alson Majanzota, leader of one of Apopo's rat handling teams. The animals can check 200sq m of land for mines in 30 minutes; a human armed with a metal detector could take up to three days to do the same job, he adds.
Rats have also been shown to be able to detect tuberculosis, and have been trained to do so in Tanzania.
Click to read: http://www.scidev.net/global/health/news/tanzanian-study-confirms-rats-ability-to-detect-tb.html
Independent commission to investigate future of internet after NSA revelations
Two-year inquiry headed by Swedish foreign minister, set up by Chatham House and CIGI thinktanks, is announced at Davos
Ewen MacAskill, defence correspondent
theguardian.com, Wednesday 22 January 2014 13.00 GMT
A major independent commission headed by the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, was launched on Wednesday to investigate the future of the internet in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations.
The two-year inquiry, announced at the World Economic Forum at Davos, will be wide-ranging but focus primarily on state censorship of the internet as well as the issues of privacy and surveillance raised by the Snowden leaks about America's NSA and Britain's GCHQ spy agencies.
The investigation, which will conducted by a 25-member panel of politicians, academics, former intelligence officials and others from around the world, is an acknowledgement of the concerns about freedom raised by the debate.
Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, said: "The rapid evolution of the net has been made possible by the open and flexible model by which it has evolved and been governed. But increasingly this is coming under attack.
"And this is happening as issues of net freedom, net security and net surveillance are increasingly debated. Net freedom is as fundamental as freedom of information and freedom of speech in our societies."
The Obama administration on Friday announced the initial findings of a White House-organised review of the NSA. There are also inquiries by the US Congress and by the European parliament, but this is the first major independent one.
The inquiry has been set up by Britain's foreign affairs thinktank Chatham House and by the Center for International Governance and Innovation (CIGI), which is partly funded by the Canadian government.
In a joint statement, Chatham House and the CIGI said the current internet regime was under threat. "This threat to a free, open and universal internet comes from two principal sources. First, a number of authoritarian states are waging a campaign to exert greater state control over critical internet resources."
The statement does not name the countries but it is aimed mainly at China and Iran, both of whom are censoring the internet.
The other big issue, according to Chatham House and the CIGI, is the revelations from Snowden.
"Second, revelations about the nature and extent of online surveillance have led to a loss of trust."
Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, said: "The issue of internet governance is set to become one of the most pressing global policy issues of our time."
The intention of the inquiry is to hold public consultations around the world. About half a dozen meetings are planned, at a cost of about £150,000 each.
Among those on the panel are: Joseph Nye, former dean of the Kennedy school of governance at Harvard; Sir David Omand, former head of GCHQ; Michael Chertoff, former secretary of the US homeland security department and co-author of the Patriot Act that expanded NSA surveillance powers; the MEP Marietje Schaake, who has been a leading advocate of internet freedom; Latha Reddy, former deputy national security adviser of India; and Patricia Lewis, research director in the international security department at Chatham House, who said: "Internet governance is too important to be left just to governments."
Asked about the lack of debate in the UK so far compared with the US and elsewhere in Europe and around the world, Lewis said: "People in Britain are more concerned than we realise. They have clearly agreed at some level to exchange data for goods and services but they did not agree for that data to be given to the government and security services.
"This is a debate we sorely need."
Gordon Smith, who is to be deputy chair of the commission, said: "For many people, internet governance sounds technical and esoteric but the reality is that the issues are 'high politics' and of consequence to all users of the internet, present and future."
*****************Human Rights Watch annual report 2014 criticises NSA mass surveillance
States with poor human rights records may use spying scandal as excuse to clamp down on internet freedom, report warns
Philip Oltermann in Berlin
The Guardian, Tuesday 21 January 2014 16.30 GMT
Link to video: NSA: Human Rights Watch criticises Obama's surveillance reformshttp://www.theguardian.com/law/video/2014/jan/21/nsa-human-rights-watch-criticises-obamas-surveillance-reforms-video
Surveillance overreach by the US government could have a disastrous long-term effect on internet freedom and free speech, Human Rights Watch warns in its latest report.
The US-based organisation says in its 24th annual survey that there is a danger some governments with poor human rights records, like China or the Gulf states, will use the NSA scandal as an excuse to "force user data to stay within their own borders, setting up the potential for increased internet censorship".
Human Rights Watch's 2014 report is the first in its 36-year history to include a warning about data protection. Previous reports had focused on internet issues mainly in relation to China, where the government has censored internet searches and arrested bloggers who have criticised the government online.
Over the years, China has invested a lot of money in building up the Golden Shield Project, known as the "Great Firewall of China". Last year, the Communist party threatened legal action against people who post on microblogs such as Sina Weibo. Activists fear the NSA scandal will now give China's government an excuse to "nationalise" the Chinese internet completely.
On Monday China appeared to indicate a new, tougher course when it announced that internet users will be required to register their real names to upload videos on the Chinese equivalent of YouTube. The new rule has been implemented, according to a state agency, in order to "prevent vulgar content, base art forms, exaggerated violence and sexual content in internet video having a negative effect on society".
Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth told the Guardian that his organisation had chosen to concentrate on data protection because "serious missteps by the US government compelled us to speak up".
"The Snowden revelations have made clear that there has been an intrusion on our right to privacy of unprecedented scope, yet the government is dismissing any complaints about our right to privacy as irrelevant."
Roth said that from a human rights perspective, one of the biggest missteps the US administration had committed was to insist that there was a difference between the content of private communication and "metadata" – information about where, when and between whom the communication takes place. This distinction was based on a 1979 court case from the pre-digital era, which Human Rights Watch described as "troglodyte".
Roth said: "I used to be a prosecutor – I used to put pen registers on people's phones, collecting the numbers that you dial – but I had to manually compile the numbers. It was very labour intensive, and hence self-limiting. Today, the computer can piece together your entire personal life in a matter of seconds."
To assume that only the listening in, not the collection part of surveillance constituted an intrusion of privacy was "a fallacy", Roth said. "Imagine the government putting a video camera in your bedroom and saying 'don't worry, the feed will only go into a government computer, which we won't look at unless we have reason to believe that wrongdoing is taking place'. Would you feel your privacy is being respected? Of course not. But that's exactly what the government is doing."
Human Rights Watch had taken little solace from President Barack Obama's speech last Friday, Roth said. "Obama said there will be no more spying on Angela Merkel. Great! But what concerns us is the US government spying on ordinary people. He didn't say we have a right to privacy. He just said: we'll tread more carefully. What use is the government promising to restrain itself if it doesn't give anyone the chance to challenge that restraint in court?"
As well as covering data protection, the 667-page report also highlights human rights abuses in over 90 countries. Human Rights Watch, which has 16 offices around the world, highlights what it calls a global trend towards "abusive majoritarianism": governments who pay lip service to the principles of democratic rule but discriminate against political minorities. New governments like Egypt or Burma, but also Kenya, Thailand, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine are cited as examples of this tendency.
The report also criticises the "painfully narrow" response to slaughter and suffering in Syria, and singles out Russia for refusing to make use of its considerable leverage to stop atrocities.
****************NSA files: Snowden says 'I acted alone' and rubbishes Russian spy claims
Former spy agency contractor tells magazine that attempt to link him to FSB are 'absurd'
Reuters in Washington
theguardian.com, Wednesday 22 January 2014 06.59 GMT
Former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden told New Yorker magazine in an encrypted interview from Moscow that he was not a Russian spy. Former NSA analyst Edward Snowden told New Yorker magazine in an encrypted interview from Moscow that he was not a Russian spy. Photograph: AP
Former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden said he acted alone in leaking US government secrets and that suggestions by some politicians he might have had help from Russia were "absurd'', the New Yorker magazine reported on Tuesday.
In an interview the magazine said was conducted by encrypted means from Moscow, Snowden was quoted as saying: "This 'Russian spy' push is absurd."
Snowden said he "clearly and unambiguously acted alone, with no help from anyone, much less a government".
"It won't stick. ... Because it's clearly false, and the American people are smarter than politicians think they are," the New Yorker quoted Snowden as saying.
The head of the US House of Representatives intelligence committee said on Sunday he was investigating whether Snowden had help from Russia in stealing and revealing US government secrets.
"I believe there's a reason he ended up in the hands – the loving arms – of an FSB agent in Moscow. I don't think that's a coincidence," Representative Mike Rogers told NBC's Meet the Press, referring to the Russian intelligence agency that is a successor of the Soviet-era KGB.
Rogers did not provide specific evidence to back his suggestions of Russian involvement in Snowden's activities, but said: "Some of the things we're finding we would call clues that certainly would indicate to me that he had some help."
Snowden fled the United States last year to Hong Kong and then to Russia, where he was granted at least a year of asylum. US officials want him returned to the United States for prosecution. His disclosures in the Guardian of large numbers of stolen secret documents sparked a debate around the world about the reach of US electronic surveillance.
Other US security officials told Reuters as recently as last week that the United States had no evidence that Snowden had any confederates who assisted him or guided him about what National Security Agency materials to hack or how to do so.
Snowden told the New York Times in October he did not take any secret NSA documents with him to Russia when he fled there in June 2013. "There's a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents," Snowden told the Times.
Snowden said in the New Yorker interview that if he were a Russian spy, "Why Hong Kong?" and why was he stuck for a lengthy period in Moscow's airport before being allowed to stay in the country.
"Spies get treated better than that," he said.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
US withholding Fisa court orders on NSA bulk collection of Americans' data
Justice Department refuses to turn over 'certain other' documents in ACLU lawsuit meant to shed light on surveillance practices
Spencer Ackerman in Washington
theguardian.com, Tuesday 21 January 2014 18.16 GMT
The Justice Department is withholding documents related to the bulk collection of Americans’ data from a transparency lawsuit launched by the American Civil Liberties Union.
US attorney Preet Bharara of the southern district of New York informed the ACLU in a Friday letter that the government would not turn over “certain other” records from a secret surveillance court, which are being “withheld in full” from a Freedom of Information Act suit the civil liberties group filed to shed light on bulk surveillance activities performed under the Patriot Act.
The decision to keep some of the records secret, in the thick of Edward Snowden’s revelations, has raised suspicions within the ACLU that the government continues to hide bulk surveillance activities from the public, despite US president Barack Obama’s Friday concession that controversial National Security Agency programs have “never been subject to vigorous public debate”.
The ACLU lawsuit, like others filed by civil liberties groups, has resulted in a trove of documents from the so-called Fisa court detailing the scope, authorizations and, in some cases, violations surrounding NSA surveillance ostensibly occurring under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The director of national intelligence now posts the released documents to a Tumblr page, usually without revealing that the disclosures were spurred by lawsuits.
The latest such disclosure happened Friday with the release of 24 documents, mostly detailing Fisa court reauthorizations of the bulk phone records collection first reported by the Guardian thanks to leaks from whistleblower Snowden.
Among the information disclosed in the documents, which date back to 2006 – the first year in which the program received authorization from the Fisa court at all – is the footnoted stipulation that the court “understands that NSA expects it will continue to provide, on average, approximately 3 telephone numbers per day to the FBI”.
If true – the footnote only appears in pre-2009 court reauthorizations – the estimate suggests the NSA has given the FBI approximately 13,203 phone numbers based on the 12-year-old domestic bulk phone data program.
In his letter, written on the day Obama gave a long-awaited speech on surveillance that pledged additional transparency, Bhahara said that Friday’s release will be the last disclosure under the terms of the ACLU’s lawsuit.
“As discussed by telephone this morning, the government in fact has processed all of the remaining FISC Orders responsive to the FOIA request in this case that relate to bulk collection, regardless of whether the order contains any additions and/or adjustments to the implementation procedures, minimization procedures, and/or reporting requirements set out in other FISC orders,” the US attorney wrote.
“The government cannot specify the total number of documents withheld in full from this final set of responsive documents because the number itself is classified."
Alexander Abdo, an ACLU attorney, noted that the government’s bulk surveillance disclosures have yet to include, among other efforts, a reported CIA program to collect international money transfers in bulk, revealed in November by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
“It appears that the government is concealing the existence of other bulk collection programs under the Patriot Act, such as the CIA’s reported collection of our financial records,” Abdo said.
“In other words, on the same day that President Obama recognized the need for a vigorous debate about bulk collection, the government appears to be hiding the ball. We can't have the public debate that President Obama wants without the facts that his agencies are hiding.”
Abdo said that the scope of the ACLU’s disclosure lawsuit only concerned surveillance efforts under Section 215 of the Patriot Act and that surveillance authorizations containing individualized suspicion were already excluded.
The NSA conducts other bulk data collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, an update to that law in 2008, and under a three-decade-old executive order known as 12333, all of which are outside the terms of the ACLU’s lawsuit.
Bharara's office routed a request for comment back through the Justice Department, which declined to elaborate on the 17 January letter.
Republican Denialism and the Ugly Truth About Income Inequality
By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Wednesday, January, 22nd, 2014, 8:11 am
Gallup is reporting that “Two out of three Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are currently distributed in the U.S. This includes three-fourths of Democrats and 54% of Republicans.”
Thanks to the Occupy Movement, we’re all familiar by now with the concept of the 99 percent and the 1 percent. And the diagram below, which appeared in The Atlantic, quite clearly explains the source of this dissatisfaction:
cbpp income inequality 2011cbpp income inequality 2011
This is a big deal. Bloomberg reported on January 16 that, “The widening divide in incomes between the poor and rich poses the most likely threat to the global economy over the next decade, according to the World Economic Forum,” which is a bunch of rich people at a posh resort talking about poor people.
But how can people be unhappy with something Fox News insists does not exist?
Media Matters explains that,
Fox News personalities have repeatedly attempted to downplay income inequality, claiming that it doesn’t exist, that it is unfixable, or that it’s a distraction from other issues. Nevertheless, the network still blamed the widening income gap on President Obama and what one Fox reporter called “Obamanomics.”
Media Matters provides a helpful sampling of Fox News’ “fair and balanced” reporting on the subject:
Fox pundits have repeatedly dismissed concerns over growing income inequality in the United States. Fox correspondent Doug McKelway once claimed it was merely “class resentment,” that exists because “some people are better, smarter, harder-working, or luckier than others.” Bill O’Reilly called it “bull.” When the network has acknowledged income inequality, its contributors have claimed that there is “no way” growing inequality is “going to be stopped,” that attempting to reverse it will result in “chronic unemployment,” and that the Obama administration’s focus on closing the income gap is merely a “distraction.”
Resentment. Distraction. So does it exist, or doesn’t it?
Conservative pundit David Brooks, as Wonkette explained last week, “has decided to take on the topic of income inequality, and has concluded that 1) income inequality is not actually a problem, and 2) if it were, we shouldn’t solve it by giving poor people more money, and also 3) the growing income of the 1% has nothing to do with the shrinking incomes of the rest of us.”
If giving poor people more money doesn’t help (as bizarre an argument as has ever been advanced – Robert Reich, writing at HuffPo, calls it “utter ignorance”), neither does this sort of verbal diarrhea. In fact, studies show that giving poor people money does help.
President Barack Obama clearly feels such a thing as income inequality exists. As Media Matters goes on to explain,
In December 2013, President Obama declared that reversing the widening gap in income inequality — the distribution of economic gains to a small percentage of the population, which, in this case, favors the very wealthy — is “the defining challenge of our time,” and began unveiling a legislative agenda aimed at addressing that trend.
So the defining challenge of our time doesn’t exist, Fox News insists, but if it does, it’s Obama’s fault.
But as Paul Krugman explained in The New York Times in September of 2012,
And now, having prevented Mr. Obama from implementing any of his policies, those same Republicans are pointing to disappointing job numbers and declaring that the president’s policies have failed.
Think of it as a two-part strategy. First, obstruct any and all efforts to strengthen the economy, then exploit the economy’s weakness for political gain. If this strategy sounds cynical, that’s because it is.
[T]he reality [is] that for most of Mr. Obama’s time in office U.S. fiscal policy has been defined not by the president’s plans but by Republican stonewalling.
On Monday, Fox News tried to sweep away the controversy by appealing to the status quo and employing some highly questionable logic in explaining to us What Obama doesn’t get about income inequality:
Disparities between rich and poor are as ancient as civilization, but in modern democracies, this condition is exacerbated by globalization and technologies that drive it.
Conservatives seem to have a difficult time with the concept that the vast majority of the nation’s wealth in concentrated in the hands of the very few. And it’s not just the United States. As The LA Times reported Monday, “The 85 richest people on Earth now have the same amount of wealth as the bottom half of the global population, the Oxfam report says.
The bottom half of the population — about 3.5 billion people — account for about $1.7 trillion, or about 0.7% of the world’s wealth, according to the Oxfam report, titled “Working for the Few.”
That’s the same amount of wealth attributed to the world’s 85 richest people.
But if the United States is not alone, it is a major mover in this trend in income redistribution. Reports The LA Times:
Oxfam said the United States has led a worldwide growth in wealth concentration.
The percentage of income held by the richest 1% in the U.S. has grown nearly 150% from 1980 through 2012. That small elite has received 95% of wealth created since 2009, after the financial crisis, while the bottom 90% of Americans have become poorer, Oxfam said.
The New York Times reported in October 2012 that, “Income inequality has soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression.”
This is not class warfare, however, this redistributing of wealth so that the few rich have it all and everyone else has nothing. And this IS a redistribution of wealth, as the Oxfam report makes clear:
The share of wealth owned by the richest 1% since 1980 expanded in all but two of the 26 nations tracked by researchers in the World Top Incomes Database.
Yet Republicans are determined that we understand that taking wealth away from everyone else and concentrating it in the hands of a few is not class warfare. But any attempt to change how this wealth is distributed, such as giving some of that wealth back to the 99% IS class warfare.
Even while crying class warfare, Republicans like to insist, as does Fox News, that there is no problem and that people are happy with what they have.
This is nothing new, unfortunately. Conservatives, married to the preservation of the status quo, seem to think that everybody else likes the status quo too. “Capitalist evangelist” Wayne Allen Root opined on Fox News last week that Americans have historically not had any problems with income inequality and that despite this inequality, America became an economic powerhouse. Why mess with the status quo?
These are, unsurprisingly, the same attitudes expressed by conservatives like Edmund Burke about the French Revolution, where income inequality led to the beheading of the king of France. Burke made the same mistake conservatives make today, that most are content to have less.
For Burke, a conservative, people were not really unhappy but for a few radicals whom he called “insects of the hour”:
Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, repose beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field, that of course they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour.
The starving, abused poor of 21st century America, no less than the starving, abused peasants of 18th century France, are, to conservative minds, nothing more than “the loud and troublesome insects of the hour.” Revolution and change are, no surprise, the enemy of what conservatives think of as “liberty.”
Conservatives, guardians of the status quo, hate change, of course. For example, Fox News said on Monday that, “High talk about social justice, widening economic opportunities, and income redistribution makes liberal politicians media darlings and wins elections, but such demagoguery does little to fill the belly of the poor.”
Needless to say, the “free enterprise marketplace” that has created this income inequality in the first place, isn’t going to put food in anyone’s belly. Writing at Forbes on Monday, Ralph Benko believes that Republicans have the advantage in the income inequality debate but somehow fails to mention that Republicans have failed to give us even one piece of job creation legislation. And don’t be fooled by some recent Republican rhetoric in favor of minimum wage hikes. In fact, Republican legislation seems determined to take food out of those bellies. If the GOP has an anti-poverty agenda, it seems to be to make poor people go away by just dying already.
If the GOP has an agenda at all, it is focused on opposition to Obama; at this point, if they can’t beat him politically, they seem to be willing – in the time honored fashion of lynching the black man – to kill him instead. It is hard to see how that will help the economy, or create jobs, or feed the poor.
But as the Gallup poll clearly shows, Americans are not happy to have less. They are not happy that a few people have it all while they have nothing. This is not natural and it is not only dangerous for people, it is dangerous for the body politic and for the health of the nation, and by extension, the world. Everyone is better off – including the rich – when everybody gets a piece of the pie. Let’s face it: the 1 percent can’t run the country by themselves if the 99 percent are dead through starvation and disease.
Pope Francis spoke out yesterday via address read by Cardinal Peter Turkson at the World Economic Forum against “an economy of exclusion and inequality.” See, even the Pope says so. Not the anti-capitalist message Republicans want to hear. Worse yet for the status quo set, “An unfettered devotion to market economics” is, said the Pope, a “new tyranny.”
Everyone seems to notice there is a problem except Republicans, who steadfastly close their eyes to radical things like facts.
Clearly, conservatives have not put a lot of thought into this subject. As Robert Reich said in speaking of David Brooks, “conservative thinker” is an oxymoron and the facts prove him right. If people don’t get paid enough to live (they call it a “living wage” for a reason) people will not only be able to buy enough food to eat but they won’t be able to buy all that crap Walmart sells, and then where will rich folks like the Waltons be? They need customers, and their customer base is not the 1 percent. Let’s face it: San Francisco 49ers head coach John Harbaugh can’t buy enough pleated khaki pants to keep Walmart afloat on his own.
America, and the world, need a return to a time when income inequality was low; we do not need to skip over that period to the Gilded Age, a time when it was high, as we have done. The American people are not grasshoppers or annoying insects calling for attention. They are people with real problems, problems exacerbated by the widening gap between the rich and the poor. It is time for the rich to wake up and realize they are driving America – and the world – into a non-sustainable future. There may be guillotines in their future, but as the poor and starving know, there are worse things than guillotines.
States Cutting Weeks of Aid to the Jobless
By ANNIE LOWREY
JAN. 21, 2014
RIEGELWOOD, N.C. — After losing her job as a security guard in June, Alnetta McKnight turned to food stamps and unemployment insurance to support herself and her 14-year-old son. But her jobless payments ran out after 20 weeks, and now they are living on close to nothing.
“I worked for 26 years; I lost my job through no fault of my own,” Ms. McKnight said, sitting in her darkened living room — she keeps the lights off to save money — in this small town about 20 miles from Wilmington, N.C. “This is what I get?”
Had Ms. McKnight been laid off a year earlier, she almost certainly would have qualified for more than a year of unemployment insurance payments, helping keep her family out of penury while she sought another position. But last July, North Carolina sharply cut its unemployment program, reducing the maximum number of weeks of benefits to 20 from 73 and reducing the maximum weekly benefit as well.
The rest of the country is now following North Carolina’s lead. A federal program supplying extra weeks of benefits to the long-term unemployed expired at the end of 2013, and congressional Democrats failed in an effort to revive it. About 1.3 million jobless workers received their last payment on Dec. 28. Starting on Jan. 1, the maximum period of unemployment payments dropped to 26 weeks in most states, down from as much as 73 weeks.
Mitch McConnell’s Office Tells Unemployed Veteran, ‘I have no control over your life.’
By: Jason Easley
Tuesday, January, 21st, 2014, 5:24 pm
When an unemployed veteran asked Mitch McConnell’s spokesperson what she is supposed to do to now that McConnell has blocked extending unemployment benefits, the senator’s spokesman replied,’I have no control over your life.’
MSNBC’s Steve Benen (of the Maddow Blog) wrote that an unemployed veteran named Wessita McKinley spoke to McConnell’s spokesperson Don Stewart while delivering 60,000 petitions calling for the extension of unemployment benefits. Here was there exchange,
“I’ve served my country, honorable discharge. I’ve done my time. I’ve done everything right,” she said. “College, school, no crime, no record. Pay my taxes. Make sure my daughter went to school.”
“Did the American dream. Got her in college,” McKinley added. “And I’m sitting here struggling. I’m now ready to take a street sweeper job if they would offer it to me. So I’m asking you the million dollar question. What am I supposed to do right now to keep a roof over my head, food in my stomach, clothes on my back, car insurance paid?
Stewart, the McConnell spokesman, countered by saying Majority Leader Harry Reid has not agreed to Republican amendments and waited too long to hold votes on the issue in the first place. But McKinley wasn’t satisfied with that answer as she continued to lament about her situation.
“I can only tell you what we can do here in the Senate,” Stewart said. “I have no control over your life.”
This is the spokesman for the same Mitch McConnell who recently laughed at the unemployed while promising to vote against extending unemployment benefits during a recent radio interview. Nothing sums up the you’re on your own attitude of the Republican Party and Mitch McConnell that looking a veteran in the eye and telling her that it is her own fault that she doesn’t have a job.
Republicans don’t care if an unemployed veteran is homeless and starving. Republicans like Mitch McConnell really do believe that their years of championing the deregulation of large banks and Wall Street had absolutely nothing to do with the economic collapse that left people like Wessita McKinley and millions of others out of work and unable to find a new job.
The truth is that Mitch McConnell does control the fate of millions of Americans who have seen their unemployment benefits expire. McConnell and his Senate Republicans could agree today to extend unemployment benefits if they wanted to. The ugly reality of the situation is that they view harming millions of Americans, including thousands of veterans, as good politics.
Spokeswoman for the Alison Grimes campaign Charly Norton responded to the compassionless Republican senate leader’s office, “First Mitch McConnell laughs in the faces of over 18,000 unemployed Kentuckians, then his top spokesman ridicules a woman struggling to make ends meet – all because he refuses to extend unemployment insurance benefits. Either McConnell doesn’t understand that being the ‘Guardian of Gridlock’ hurts real people or he simply doesn’t care. No wonder more and more Kentuckians believe that he should get out of the way and let Alison Lundergan Grimes fight for the hardworking, middle-class families of the Commonwealth. Unlike Mitch McConnell, Alison will be a champion for the people of Kentucky in the United States Senate.”
Mitch McConnell and his office don’t care about the people that they are supposed to be serving. McConnell has become a stain on our political process who must be voted out of office this November. For millions of unemployed Americans, it’s time to ditch Mitch.
Gov. Ultrasound Gets Ultra Indicted As Bob McDonnell Is Hit With 14 Counts
By: Justin Baragona more
Tuesday, January, 21st, 2014, 6:32 pm
On Tuesday afternoon, Bob McDonnell and his wife were indicted on federal corruption charges stemming from gifts they had accepted while McDonnell was in office. The former Republican Governor of Virginia, McDonnell just recently left office after serving his single term (Virginia only allows one term for a Governor.) The scandal had been plaguing McDonnell for months to the point that he was a detriment to Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign, his hand-picked successor.
Among the 14 counts that McDonnell and his wife are charged with are three counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, two counts of lying to a federal credit union and multiple counts of obtaining property under color of official right. The indictment states that McDonnell and his wife received at least $140,000 worth of gifts, which included a Rolex, expensive designer clothes and golf clubs, among other things.
Obviously, McDonnell denied any wrongdoing whatsoever. After the indictment came down, the former Governor had this to say:
“I deeply regret accepting legal gifts and loans from Mr. Williams, all of which have been repaid with interest, and I have apologized for my poor judgment for which I take full responsibility. However, I repeat emphatically that I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams in exchange for what I believed was his personal generosity and friendship.”
McDonnell has insisted that the gifts and ‘loans’ that he received from Johnnie Williams, the CEO of a pharmaceutical company, were only received as a friend, and that Williams received nothing in return for his generosity to the McDonnells. McDonnell has stated that he has repaid Mr. Williams all the money that Williams ‘lent’ to him, as well as gave him back the gifts.
Even if McDonnell can somehow avoid jail time or a guilty verdict, his political career is pretty much toast. At one time, he was looked at as a rising star in the Republican Party, as he was being groomed for a potential run at the Presidency. He easily won election in 2009 as Governor of Virginia when he defeated Creigh Deeds by 18 points. This was after serving as the Attorney General of Virginia.
However, things started getting sour for McDonnell even before the corruption allegations as, in 2012, he advocated for a measure that would require women who were seeking an abortion to submit to a trans-vaginal ultrasound. Many critics saw this as a way for conservatives to shame women if they chose to have an abortion. The bill was changed prior to passage to require an abdominal ultrasound be done prior to an abortion being performed. Regardless, it was still seen as both intrusive and unnecessary and McDonnell started to see his approval ratings plummet.
By the middle of 2013, McDonnell and his family were plagued by allegations of improper spending at the Governor’s mansion. McDonnell paid the state back thousands of dollars to try to put it away, but by that time, the bigger scandal was starting to brew, as the word was out that McDonnell was using his position to straight up accept gifts and money in return for government favors.
Bye bye, Bob. It was nice knowing you. (Not really.)
Ukrainian opposition issues ultimatum to president
Former heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko says President Yanukovych has 24 hours in which to call snap elections
Shaun Walker in Kiev
The Guardian, Thursday 23 January 2014
At least three people died in a day of violence in Kiev on Wednesday, as an opposition leader said he was willing to face "a bullet in the forehead" if President Viktor Yanukovych did not launch snap elections.
A three-hour meeting between the embattled president and the three main political opposition leaders ended without a deal, leaving the capital braced for intensified violence.
Two men died from bullet wounds on Wednesday, according to Ukraine's general prosecutor, while the third died after falling from a rooftop while fighting with police. Protesters report that dozens of people have been seriously injured during the clashes, which have been running since Sunday evening.
Parts of central Kiev resembled a battlefield, with police firing rubber bullets and wielding truncheons, while protesters lobbed molotov cocktails. The two men who were shot were killed with live ammunition, the authorities admitted. As night fell people drove cars filled with used tyres up to the main front line and made a giant bonfire, throwing molotov cocktails from behind the flames.
Former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, now an opposition politician, said Yanukovych had 24 hours in which to call snap elections, and demanded another meeting with the president on Thursday. If this did not happen, he said, the opposition would "go on the attack". His words drew loud cheers from the crowd on Independence Square, hub of the protests.
"If we have to fight, I will fight together with you. If we have to face bullets, I will face bullets," Klitschko told the crowd.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who represents the party of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and attended the meeting with Yanukovych, also had fighting words for the tens of thousands of demonstrators on Independence Square: "Tomorrow we will go forward together. And if it's a bullet in the forehead, then it's a bullet in the forehead – but in an honest, fair and brave way."
The opposition leaders initially condemned attacks by protesters on riot police when they began on Sunday night, saying they were carried out by "provocateurs". But as the mood has become more radical, they have come under pressure to take a more decisive stance.
Yanukovych issued a statement saying he did not want bloodshed or the use of force, but the government does not appear ready to compromise. Prime minister Mykola Azarov called the protesters "terrorists". He said those who died were responsible for their fate and insisted the government had no option but to use force.
He later left Kiev for Davos, where he was due to take part in a panel at the World Economic Forum on Friday. However, it emerged that after the deaths in Kiev his invitation to the panel, and to the forum itself, was rescinded.
Condemnation of the violence poured in from across the world. The US embassy in Kiev said it had revoked visas for a number of Ukrainian officials linked to police violence against demonstrators, and said Washington was considering taking further steps against the regime.
***************Ukraine protesters declare eight-hour truce as talks with government continue
After declaring truce, opposition politician Vitali Klitschko said he would return to barricades later to announce results of talks
Shaun Walker in Kiev
theguardian.com, Thursday 23 January 2014 12.02 GMT
An eight-hour truce has been declared by protesters in Kiev after a day of violence in which at least three people died and an opposition leader said he was willing to face "a bullet in the forehead" if Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovych, did not launch snap elections.
The truce was announced by opposition politician and former heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko at midday Kiev time, as negotiations between opposition leaders and Yanukovych were expected to continue. On Wednesday, a three-hour meeting between the sides ended without a deal, leaving the capital braced for intensified violence.
After the truce was announced, protesters began to extinguish the huge burning barricade, made of thousands of tyres, which has separated them from lines of riot police and been the focal point of clashes.
Klitschko said he would return to the barricades at 8pm local time (6pm GMT) to announce the results of negotiations.
Two men died from bullet wounds on Wednesday, according to Ukraine's general prosecutor, while the third died after falling from a rooftop while fighting with police. Protesters report that dozens of people have been seriously injured during the clashes, which had been running since Sunday evening.
Parts of central Kiev resembled a battlefield during the clashes, with police firing rubber bullets and wielding truncheons, while protesters lobbed molotov cocktails. The two men who were shot were killed with live ammunition, the authorities admitted.
On Wednesday, Klitschko said Yanukovych had 24 hours in which to call snap elections, demanding another meeting with the president. If this did not happen, he said, the opposition would "go on the attack". His words drew loud cheers from the crowd on Independence Square, hub of the protests.
"If we have to fight, I will fight together with you. If we have to face bullets, I will face bullets," Klitschko told the crowd.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who represents the party of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and attended the meeting with Yanukovych, also had fighting words for the tens of thousands of demonstrators on Independence Square, saying: "Tomorrow we will go forward together. And if it's a bullet in the forehead, then it's a bullet in the forehead – but in an honest, fair and brave way."
The opposition leaders initially condemned protesters' attacks on riot police when they began on Sunday night, saying they were carried out by "provocateurs", but as the mood has become more radical, they have come under pressure to take a more decisive stance.
Yanukovych issued a statement saying he did not want bloodshed or the use of force, but the government does not appear ready to compromise. The prime minister, Mykola Azarov, called the protesters "terrorists". He said those who died were responsible for their fate and insisted the government had no option but to use force.
He later left Kiev for Davos, where he was due to take part in a panel at the World Economic Forum on Friday. However, it emerged that after the deaths in Kiev his invitation to the panel, and to the forum itself, was rescinded.
Condemnation of the violence poured in from across the world. The US embassy in Kiev said it had revoked visas for a number of Ukrainian officials linked to police violence against demonstrators, and said Washington was considering taking further steps against the regime.
**************Kiev becomes a battle zone as Ukraine protests turn fatal
Deaths of at least three demonstrators come as businesses near protest hub reportedly ordered to close
Oksana Grytsenko in Kiev and Shaun Walker
theguardian.com, Wednesday 22 January 2014 18.19 GMT
Link to video: Kiev protests intensify on Ukraine's Day of National Unityhttp://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2014/jan/22/kiev-protests-intensify-ukraine-day-national-unity-video
Wednesday is Ukraine's Day of National Unity, but the country has never felt so divided.
At least three people have died in Kiev, the first casualties of a protest movement that has rumbled on for two months before bursting dramatically into violence over the weekend.
Two protesters were shot dead during clashes with police, who attempted to take back control of the city centre. Prosecutors confirmed earlier claims by the protest leaders that the pair had been shot with live ammunition. A third protester died after falling from a high column at Dynamo Kiev's football stadium while fighting with police, Reuters reported.
Oleg Musiy, the coordinator of the medical service at Independence Square, told a pro-opposition radio station that another two people had been killed, though this could not be confirmed.
As President Viktor Yanukovych held long talks with the trio of opposition leaders who have led the protests for the past two months, the deaths seemed likely to further inflame the tense situation in the country.
Parts of central Kiev resembled a battle zone as thick clouds of smoke filled the air and the sound of stun grenades rang out. Police shot at demonstrators with rubber bullets, and rumours swirled that a storm of the main protest encampment, the heavily barricaded Independence Square, could begin at any time. At one point, police deployed an armoured personnel carrier to back up their movements.
Martial law was effectively declared at 4pm local time, as shops, hotels and other businesses in the area surrounding the hub of the protests were reportedly ordered to close their doors for the day. A full-on storm was not immediately forthcoming, however.
Riot police pulled back from further clashes but were involved in a protracted standoff with protesters near the Dynamo Kiev football stadium overnight. People brought thousands of tyres to create a blazing wall in between the police lines and the protest barricades. At midnight, a full-scale firework display was launched, with the rockets aimed horizontally at police. On Independence Square, the already formidable barricades were augmented with more sacks of snow, metal railings and tyres.
The first attempts to push back protesters came as dawn broke, amid a swirling blizzard. Police began their assault on the impromptu barricades on Hrushevskogo Street, where clashes have been ongoing since Sunday evening. Videos circulated of the police beating and kicking protesters, many of whom were hurling rocks and molotov cocktails at officers in scenes that shocked residents of Kiev. Political protest has been a way of life here since the 2004 Orange Revolution, but before this week, rallies have never descended into violence.
Police launched another attack on protesters shortly after midday Kiev time (10am GMT), dispersing a crowd of thousands of people, moving them hundreds of metres back. They used teargas and rubber bullets and beat fleeing protesters with sticks. Some people were arrested. Then thousands of policemen regrouped into new lines to take shelter from stones being hurled at them.
Even as his riot police were on the attack, Yanukovych released a statement urging them to "regulate the conflict in a peaceful way" and saying he was against "bloodshed and forceful methods". He asked the opposition to hold talks and demanded that people "not heed the calls of political radicals".
Vitali Klitschko, the opposition leader and former heavyweight boxer, called on Yanukovych to announce snap elections as a way to resolve an ongoing political crisis.
"I know that this very second he [the president] is watching this live broadcast. You, the president, you know that snap elections will change the situation without blood, and we'll do everything to achieve this," Klitschko told the crowd in Independence Square on Wednesday evening. He added that talks with Yanukovych that started on Wednesday would have to continue on Thursday, otherwise "we will go on the attack".
Yanukovych on Wednesday met the three main opposition leaders – Klitschko, nationalist Oleh Tyahnybok, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko's party – for three hours.
The prime minister, Mykola Azarov, struck a defiant note, blaming the victims for their own deaths and saying that the government had "no other option" but to use force against protesters.
"The participants of these disturbances cannot be called peaceful. These are criminals, who are disturbing order. I want to officially state that the victims are the responsibility of the troublemakers."
Azarov said terrorists were threatening the lives of ordinary citizens in Kiev, and that the "criminal" actions of protesters would be punished and suggested further force was possible. He was due to appear at the World Economic Forum in Davos later on Wednesday, but his invitation was reportedly withdrawn.
Earlier the protesters reconstructed their barricades as thousands came to support them.
In a letter read out by her daughter Eugenia in Independence Square, Yulia Tymoshenko called on the protesters to continue their struggle. "The blood of these heroes of Ukraine lies on the hands of Yanukovych," the letter said. "If we, Ukrainians, forgive him this, then we will deserve everything he will do to us later."
Vasyl, 76, a pensioner from the central Cherkasy region, said: "They [the authorities] provoked this. We are unarmed but nevertheless they are afraid of us." His friend Pavlo, 60, wearing stripes in the colours of Ukrainian and EU flags, said he came to support the protesters and was ready to throw stones at police.
"The blood is the fault of the convict [Yanukovych] and his party. We want these occupiers to leave Ukraine."
An exhausted Orthodox priest with a huge cross around his neck trudged between the lines, trying unsuccessful to bring calm. "I'm here to placate the violence. My congregation is here," he said.
Yuriy Lutsenko, a Ukrainian former interior affairs minister, called on riot police to stop fighting against the protesters. "Soldiers, if you stand here we will become Russia and you will have to go and fight in Chechnya," he said through a loudspeaker, addressing lines of police from a minivan in the middle of the crowd. "This is not your war. This is a war of the Ukrainian people against the mafia."
The protests began when Yanukovych turned his back on a planned association agreement with the European Union, citing financial pressure and the need for closer ties with Russia. They have since grown into a more general protest against Yanukovych's government, and have also attracted a noisy minority who hold radical far-right views.
Condemnation of the violence came in a torrent from across Europe. Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, described the situation as extremely serious. The EU's response remains to be seen, he said, but "it won't be business as usual". José Manuel Barroso, president of the European commission, said he was shocked at the deaths. He added: "I would like to explicitly underline the fundamental responsibility of the Ukrainian authorities to now take action to de-escalate this crisis and, in particular, the need for them to engage in a genuine dialogue with the opposition and with civil society on the ways to overcome this deep crisis."
The United States revoked visas to several Ukrainian officials on Wednesday over the violence in November and December of last year.
The main voice of support for tough action has come from Moscow, where on Tuesday, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused European politicians of "fuelling" the violence in Ukraine, and noted that in any European country, the seizure of public buildings and violence against police would also be met with force.
Greece offers reward for information on extremist Christodoulos Xiros
Convict from terror group November 17 released video vowing to resume attacks after vanishing on prison leave
Associated Press in Athens
theguardian.com, Wednesday 22 January 2014 20.05 GMT
Greek authorities have announced rewards totalling €4m (£3.2m) for information leading to the capture of fugitives in four terrorism-related cases, days after an escaped convict posted a video statement online vowing to resume attacks.
Anti-terrorist police have been conducting a nationwide manhunt since 7 January when Christodoulos Xiros, a 55-year-old serving six life sentences for carrying out killings as part of the November 17 group, vanished while on prison leave.
Five people have been arrested in the past two days in Athens and Greece's second-largest city Thessaloniki in terrorism-related raids, police said.
In a video uploaded on Monday, Xiros criticised the handling of Greece's financial crisis, threatened politicians and journalists and vowed further attacks.
Professing a mix of Marxism and nationalism, the November 17 group killed 23 people, including Greek politicians, businessmen and British, American and Turkishforeign diplomats and military officials, from 1975 to 2000. A €1m (£0.8m) reward was being offered for information leading to Xiros's capture, police said. The same sum would be paid each for the capture of a man and woman who vanished in 2012 following their release from jail after serving the maximum 18 months in pre-trial detention.
Nikos Maziotis and his wife Panagiota Roupa were sentenced in absentia last year to 25 years in prison for participation in Revolutionary Struggle, a group active between 2003 and 2009. The organisation claimed responsibility for attacks including bombing the Athens stock exchange, planting a massive bomb that failed to explode outside Citibank offices and firing a rocket-propelled grenade into the US embassy. Nobody was hurt in the latter attack, and the group has not killed anyone, although it shot and severely wounded a riot policeman in 2009.
The disappearance of Xiros, added to those of Maziotis and Roupa, has been a major embarrassment for Greek authorities.
"The Greek state … will do whatever it can, whatever it has a constitutional duty to do, in order to protect the country, society and its economic development," public order minister Nikos Dendias said in announcing the reward.
Another €1m is being offered for information leading to the identification and arrest of unknown gunmen who shot and killed two members of the Nazi-inspired Golden Dawn party as they stood outside a neighbourhood party office in Athens last November. A third party member was critically wounded.
The justice ministry announced on Wednesday that the governor of Greece's largest prison, near Athens, had been transferred to other duties while an investigation into Xiros's disappearance was under way.
Shorter lifespans among poor costing Europe trillions
Report reveals that avoidable cost of health inequalities is now greater than most European nations' combined GDP
Randeep Ramesh, social affairs editor
theguardian.com, Wednesday 22 January 2014 23.17 GMT
European nations face an annual bill of more than €1.3tn (£1.1tn) as the lives of the poorest in society are shortened through illness and disability, a EU report claims. New figures show that the "avoidable cost of health inequalities" is greater than most European nations' GDP, and the report warns that "ignoring the social, economic and health costs of health inequalities will risk economic recovery".
The study reveals that losses in labour productivity cost the continent €141bn, and premature deaths another €1.3tn – greater than the economies of 24 EU nations. By comparison, the UK's economy, the third biggest in Europe, was worth €1.9tn.
There are wide variations between countries. The gap in healthy life expectancy, which measures how long people live without disability, was 19 years for males and 18.4 years for females between countries with the highest and lowest rates. For life expectancy, the gap was 13.4 years for males and 10.6 years for females.
However, the research pointed out, "Only the wealthiest enjoy better health, with the overwhelming majority of us increasingly and unnecessarily being disabled by ill health, or are dying prematurely as a result of avoidable health inequalities."
Professor Sir Michael Marmot, of the UCL Institute of Health Equity, who led the group that prepared the evidence for the EU, said: "We know health inequalities are killing on a grand scale. While the impact of the economic recession is likely to have increased these risks, the start of the recovery is an opportunity to begin to reduce them."
Last year Marmot warned that the UK's current high level of young people not in employment, education or training was a "public health timebomb waiting to explode". The evidence today was that Europe's recent slump had planted similar devices in other economies.
The group of experts is calling for EU funds to support action to reduce health inequalities, including programmes that promote early development, quality education and training, and fair and safe employment.
Peter Goldblatt, Marmot's deputy at UCL, said the key was the "control that people have over their lives. People who lose control over their lives are more likely to lead disorganised lives and smoke more, have ligh levels of obesity, and be less likely to cope with alcohol."
Goldblatt said that stress came from balance between "reward and effort" in employment. "The lower the status of the job, the worse the balance between effort and reward."
Adonis Georgiadis, the Greek health minister, said: "The economic crisis has taken a heavy toll on the health of wellbeing of citizens across the European Union, particularly in Greece. This is reflected in rising unemployment, the growth of poverty, and the reduction of public services threatening poorer health outcomes and widening health inequalities. Lack of work and opportunities has prevented people – particularly young people – realising their potential and making a full contribution to society."
Jane Ellison MP, the UK government's public health minister, said: "Having led the way over the previous years, one of the challenges for the UK public health agenda remains to reduce health inequalities in order to continue improving health outcomes across the board. This programme shows how this can be done by devising practical approaches to the issues inherent to health inequalities and by building on impetus across Europe."
Nick Clegg: Tories' flirtation with EU exit is damaging Britain
Deputy prime minister to risk rift with coalition partners by calling for Britain to stand tall in EU at Davos
Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent
theguardian.com, Thursday 23 January 2014 00.24 GMT
Nick Clegg will today seek to upstage David Cameron at the World Economic Forum in Davos when he warns business and European leaders that the Tories are damaging Britain by "flirting with exit" from the EU.
The deputy prime minister will call for Britain to "stand tall in the EU" when he takes part in two events in Davos – a discussion on the new Europe with EU leaders, and a discussion about China – before Cameron takes to the stage.
Clegg has not attended the World Economic Forum for a few years. But he decided to put in an appearance this year amid fears that the prime minister is deterring investors from Britain by raising questions about Britain's EU membership.
A spokesperson for Clegg said: "Nick Clegg is … attending Davos to represent thousands of British businesses and the millions of British workers who rely on the UK's position in Europe. With European leaders discussing reform, he is not prepared to simply allow Conservatives flirting with the exit door to be the only British voice in this important debate.
"Nick Clegg has become so concerned about the damage being done to the reputation of UK Plc by the Tory party that he wants to take every possible opportunity to set out a more balanced view to investors and the international community."
In his first event of the day, Clegg, who arrived in Davos late last night, will join three EU prime ministers for a discussion about the new Europe. The group will include Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister, who is Cameron's closest EU ally. But Reinfeldt leads the Moderate party, which remains in the European People's party group in the European Parliament after the Tories set up a new group with Poland's socially conservative main opposition party.
Tickets sold out within an hour for Clegg's second event, with the OECD general secretary Angel Gurría, which is entitled China, Europe and the US: the competitive challenge. Clegg will tell the event: "The UK cannot stand tall in the modern world if it doesn't stand tall in its own backyard. That means standing tall in the EU and working collectively towards growth.
"To trade successfully in the modern world, Britain must stay in. As an EU member, we have access to trade agreements with more than 50 countries around the world – and we've launched negotiations with the US.
"As power rises in the east and the US subsequently turns more of its attention in that direction, the importance to Britain of us being part of Europe will become even more apparent. It is vital for our country's prosperity and vital for British jobs. The commission has confirmed if the UK left the EU, we'd lose access to EU trade agreements with third parties and potentially have to negotiate them all from scratch, and negotiate from a much weaker position.
"We simply will not be taken seriously by the Americans or the Chinese if we're isolated and irrelevant amongst our own neighbours. We stand tall in Washington, Beijing, Delhi when we stand tall in Brussels, Paris and Berlin."
A Lib Dem source said: "This is not about raining or indeed snowing on the prime minister's parade. It is about making the case for Britain in Europe."
Fascist Hungarian Gábor Vona: not the sort of immigrant we want in the UK
The leader of the Jobbik party, the most powerful extreme-right organisation in Europe, says he's coming here to host a forum for Hungarian citizens. Should Theresa May block his entry?
Wednesday 22 January 2014 15.20 GMT
Appearance: Troubled loner made good.
And has he made good? Are you kidding? He's Europe's most successful fascist!
I didn't know we were giving out awards for that sort of thing. We're not. But he's the leader of Hungary's Jobbik party, which has 43 seats in the Hungarian parliament and three in the EU parliament, making it the most powerful extreme-right organisation in Europe.
What is the secret of their success? Anti-immigrant rhetoric, anti-Gypsy rhetoric and, increasingly, thinly veiled antisemitism. When the World Jewish Congress was held in Budapest, Vona said: "The Israeli conquerors, these investors, should look for another country in the world for themselves because Hungary is not for sale."
So not that thinly veiled, then. No.
How's his anti-Muslim rhetoric? For a European fascist, Vona is strangely pro-Islam. He once said: "Islam is the last hope of humanity in the darkness of globalism and liberalism."
What's that all about? It may be part of his pan-Turanian vision – he believes that despite religious differences, Turks and Hungarian share some kind of blood bond.
Odd. Or it could just be an adjunct to the party's antisemitism, which plays well in Hungary. A recent poll showed that 63% of Hungarians felt hostile toward Jews, even though there are only 100,000 Jews in Hungary, which has a population of 10 million.
Either way, it doesn't seem a terribly exportable sort of fascism. We'll see. Vona is coming to the UK.
When? At the weekend, unless Home Secretary Theresa May heeds calls from politicians and Jewish community leaders to ban him.
She should – we don't want these anti-immigration types coming over here. We're full up! Jobbik deny rumours that Vona is here to link up with BNP supporters, claiming he is merely hosting a forum for Hungarian citizens ahead of upcoming Hungarian elections.
Is that true? Who knows? So far only 57 people have said they plan to attend, according to the event's Facebook page. The police are assessing the situation.
Do say: "We must do everything we can to counter the racism promulgated by far-right politicians such as Gabor Vona."
Don't say: "Bloody foreigners."
01/22/2014 02:42 PM
Romance and Reform: Does Hollande Mean Business This Time?
By Sven Böll, Ralf Neukirch and Britta Sandberg
German politicians are letting out a sigh of relief over French President François Hollande's apparent about face on economic reforms. With his private life under scrutiny, is he strong enough to push through needed changes?
It was the photo that paparazzo Sébastien Valiela had been dreaming of for a whole year. Sitting in a café last January, he told colleagues from the French daily Le Monde: "If someone succeeds in photographing François Hollande and Julie Gayet together, it will be the ultimate coup."
By then, Valiela had known for months that the French president was having an affair with the actress.
Shortly after Christmas, he staked out a position on a staircase opposite the apartment in which the two meet and waited. A colleague of his positioned himself on the street just across from the elegant townhouse in Paris' 8th arrondissement whose blue door is now known around the world.
Valiela enjoys working in tandem. "It increases the chances of success and also enables shots to be taken from multiple angles," he says. A short time later he snapped Hollande on a motor scooter.
This isn't the first time that paparazzi photos have proven dicey for a French president. In 1994, paparazzi succeeded in taking the first ever photo of President Francois Mitterrand and Mazarine, the daughter he sired out of wedlock. Many had known about Mitterrand's secret life, but until the photo came out, they had kept mum about it.
"If only the French ran America …" Britain's Economist wrote satirically this week, Barack Obama would be having an affair with Jennifer Aniston, the Secret Service would deliver bagels to the couple in Ms. Aniston's flat and 77 percent of Americans would believe that the "president's private life is his own business." Neither would voters, the magazine continued, be put off by the fact that he had previously sired four children with his long-term partner Hillary Clinton, a woman he never married.
Surprising and Unexpected
Meanwhile, the latest rumors making their way around Paris are that the affair between Gayet and Hollande has been going on for two years. It is said that she even introduced the president to her grandmother and that the actress is expecting his child.
The liaison came as a surprise -- so much so that it has virtually eclipsed the other major surprise that swept through France last week and which ought to have been given considerably more attention.
After considerable procrastination, Hollande finally carried out the most decisive reversal of his term last Tuesday by announcing comprehensive economic reforms. It represents a radical renunciation of his Socialist Party's election platforms. Speaking in front of 600 journalists gathered at the Elysée presidential palace, Hollande said the reforms represented "likely the biggest social compromise in decades."
Hollande wants to cut hefty family welfare payroll charges for companies, cut government spending by €50 billion between 2015 and 2017, eliminate bureaucracy, establish a "simplification council" to cut red tape for businesses, improve Franco-German relations and help strengthen French businesses.
"Whatever he does," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said recently, "it will never be that which is expected."
Henrik Uterwedde of the German-French Institute (DFI), a think tank in Ludwigsburg, Germany, that focuses on ties between the two countries, said the steps meant that Hollande had finally faced up to reality. "After these announcements, it would be very difficult for Hollande to reverse course," Uterwedde says.
For far too long, France had hoped that global economic forces would somehow retreat, as if it were some kind of illness that might eventually go away. The country seemed to withdraw from economic reality, reacting to the ever closer intertwining of international economies by instead focusing on increasing the size of government.
Big Government and Lagging Competitiveness
Whereas the Germans made their labor market more flexible, lowered taxes and reformed the social system, the French economy instead further deteriorated. Unit labor costs, an important indicator of international competitiveness, have risen by more than 20 percent since 2000. In Germany, the same indicator hasn't even risen by 10 percent. France has since become the EU country with the second-highest unit labor costs, trailing only Sweden.
The French also have the greatest amount of freetime in Europe, creating another burden for businesses. The French work 680 hours each year per capita; Germans work around 100 hours more. Still, expensive workers aren't the only problem for French companies. Because the government seeks to solve problems of its own making through additional expenditures and job-creation programs, government spending in France represents the highest share of GDP in Europe: over 55 percent.
A big government and lagging competitiveness -- the result has been chronic weakness in growth and employment. There are few other countries in the EU whose industry has been responsible for creating as little added value as France. That's why Hollande's announcement that companies will be freed of steep taxes and red tape is a step in the right direction. It's the only way new jobs can be created.
Within the German government, Hollande's ideological U-turn has been greeted with a sigh of relief. Chancellor Angela Merkel was aware that the French president has recognized the need for reforms for some time. She was just waiting for him to finally act on that knowledge.
But the fact that Hollande has now so clearly expressed the importance of the German-French relationship took leaders in Berlin by surprise. "This could make things easier in Europe," one member of Merkel's cabinet said. "Still, it will remain difficult to find common positions."
This is partly because the very areas in which Hollande would like to see greater cooperation are ones where many Germans believe there will be no quick fixes. Take defense policy for example. On this front, Merkel is prepared to work more closely together. In return, when it comes to Paris' military missions in Africa, for example, she wants France to "coordinate with us instead of demanding afterwards that we participate," says one high-ranking government official.
Hollande also suggested a harmonization of corporate taxes, but a Franco-German working group has been addressing the issue since 2010. And it looks as though these talks will continue for a long time before any agreement is reached. Officials inside Germany's Foreign Ministry are hoping to agree on the language of a paper at upcoming German-French Consultations of high-ranking government members on Feb. 19, setting the tone for greater cooperation.
It remains to be seen whether the French president can succeed in creating reforms as sustainable as those pushed through by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. His Agenda 2010, a package of structural reforms that, among other things, curtailed long-term social welfare benefits and cut unit labor costs, is widely credited with helping transform Germany from the "Sick Man of Europe" to its biggest economic success story. Schröder himself promised parliament in 2003 that Germany would "have to cut social payments made by the state, promote individual responsibility and demand more effort from everybody." The statements came long before the real work had been done, namely the implementation of tough reforms and the highly divisive Hartz IV laws that resulted in the curtailing of long-term unemployment welfare and other benefits.
If Hollande truly wants to slash billions from the French national budget, then he, too, will have to implement tough measures. This applies not only to the country's generous cradle-to-grave social welfare system, but also to the country's bloated government administration. And those steps alone won't likely be enough.
In France, it has long been taboo to liberalize the labor market or to curtail jobless benefits. Both of those measures were central components of Schröder's Agenda 2010, and they were considered to be the driving forces of Germany's job-creation miracle. If Hollande attempts to push such reforms through, it's likely he will first have to survive the persistent protests that would likely ensue.
But Hollande has already shown that people often underestimate him and that the French are capable of things that neither the Americans nor the Germans can do.
Could one possibly imagine Angela Merkel driving a scooter at night to visit her paramour -- say, German actor Til Schweiger?
Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey
Berlusconi investigated for witness tampering in prostitution trial
Former Italian prime minister being investigated alongside lawyers and several young women
Associated Press in Rome
theguardian.com, Thursday 23 January 2014 11.45 GMT
Milan prosecutors have opened a new investigation against Silvio Berlusconi over accusations he tampered with witnesses in a trial in which he was convicted of paying for sex with an underage sex worker.
The decision to open an investigation, announced on Thursday, adds to a long series of legal problems hanging over the leader of Italy's main centre-right party, who has been banned from parliament over a separate tax fraud conviction.
It may also complicate efforts to reform a complicated electoral system blamed for chronic instability in Italy, following an agreement at the weekend between Berlusconi's Forza Italia party and the centre-left Democratic party.
Berlusconi was convicted last year of paying for sex with former nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, better known by the stage name "Ruby the Heartstealer", when she was under 18 and of abusing his powers as then-prime minister to get her released from police custody over unrelated theft accusations.
The 77-year-old media billionaire has appealed against the sentence, which will not take effect until the whole appeals process is completed.
In a statement on Thursday, Berlusconi repeated his accusations that judges and prosecutors had targeted him for political reasons and said he would not be deterred.
"I will remain in place, more convinced than ever of the need to keep fighting for what I believe in profoundly."
The latest investigation follows the conviction of three associates in a related trial in which they were found guilty of procuring young women for prostitution at parties at Berlusconi's luxurious villa near Milan.
Last year, judges in the trial requested prosecutors to consider opening an investigation into allegations that Berlusconi and his lawyers had met some of the young women for meetings to discuss the evidence they planned to give in court.
In a written judgment on the case, the court said there was evidence Berlusconi had paid "money and other benefits" to young women who had taken part in the parties to give misleading evidence in the case.
The investigation also targets Berlusconi's lawyers Niccolo Ghedini and Piero Longo, both of whom have denied accusations of witness tampering, as well as 42 other individuals.
Russian socialite sparks outrage with 'racist chair' photograph
Dasha Zhukova - gallery owner and girlfriend of Roman Abramovich - pictured sitting on a contorted, near-naked mannequin of a black woman
Shaun Walker in Moscow
The Guardian, Tuesday 21 January 2014 17.49 GMT
In an airy white blouse, art gallery owner Dasha Zhukova poses serenely on a chair, in a photograph taken for a Russian fashion website. The only problem: the chair is fashioned from a contorted lifelike mannequin of a black woman, sparking an internet outcry and allegations of racism.
It did not help matters that the photograph of Zhukova – a Russian socialite and the girlfriend of oligarch Roman Abramovich – was published on Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday in the US.
Screengrab of Dasha Zhukova in Buro A screen grab after the image was cropped. Photograph: Buro 24/7
The photograph accompanied an interview with Zhukova about her art magazine Garage and was published on the Russian website Buro 24/7, a project of fellow Moscow "it girl" Miroslava Duma. The picture was widely condemned by bloggers and internet users, and has since been removed from Duma's Instagram feed.
Zhukova, however, defended the image in a statement: "This photograph, which has been published completely out of context, is of an art work intended specifically as a commentary on gender and racial politics. I utterly abhor racism, and would like to apologise to anyone who has been offended by this image."
In the photograph, the mannequin is naked, save for knee-high boots, elbow-length gloves and black hotpants. She is lying on her back with her legs crushing her breasts against her body and her head tilted up, possibly in pain. The Russian gallery owner, who has become one of the best-known figures on the international art scene, looks calmly at the camera, resting her back against one of the mannequin's upright boots.
The original photo of Dasha Zhukova in Buro 24/7 The image before it was cropped. Photograph: Buro 24/7/screen grab
The chair echoes a 1969 artwork by British pop artist Allen Jones and belonging to the Tate gallery in which the mannequin is white.
The website that published the article apologised on Tuesday for any offence caused.
"Buro 24/7 is categorically opposed to the idea of racism, oppression or humiliation of people in any form," said a representative of Buro 24/7, reading from a statement. "We see this chair purely in an artistic context. We apologise to all our readers who were offended by these photographs."
The website did not remove the photograph from the article, but cropped it, so that Zhukova was visible but her mannequin chair was cut out of the shot.
Elton John: Russia's homosexuality propaganda laws are deeply dangerous to LGBT community
The singer writes a forceful letter to Russia and Vladimir Putin following a recent visit to Moscow – read the full letter here
• Elton John condemns Russia's 'vicious' anti-gay legislation - news
theguardian.com, Thursday 23 January 2014 08.31 GMT
One month after performing in the Russian cities of Moscow and Kazan, Sir Elton John has published a letter on his website, eltonjohn.com, calling for Russia to drop its "homosexual propaganda" law and change the way it treats its citizens. Here the singer recalls the stories of Russian fans who had been threatened, insulted and attacked for being gay:
I am deeply grateful for the support of the Russian people who have welcomed and accepted me in their country ever since I first visited in 1979.
On my last visit, in December 2013, I wondered whether the new legislation banning "homosexual propaganda" might have changed that. It hadn't. I still felt the same warmth and welcome from the audiences that I have felt every time I have been in Russia.
On that trip I met with members of the LGBT community in Moscow. Although I was still welcomed as an openly gay foreigner, I wanted to really understand at first-hand what difference the legislation had made to Russian LGBT in their own country. What I heard reinforced all the media stories that have been circling since the propaganda bill became federal law: that vicious homophobia has been legitimised by this legislation and given extremists the cover to abuse people's basic human rights.
The people I met in Moscow – gay men and lesbians in their 20′s, 30′s and 40′s - told me stories about receiving threats from vigilante groups who would 'cure' them of homosexuality by dousing them with urine or beating them up. One young man was stalked outside a gay club by someone posing as a taxi driver who tried to garrotte him with a guitar string because he was a "sodomite". Everyone shared stories of verbal and physical abuse – at work, in bars and restaurants or in the street – since the legislation came into force last June. And, some of the vital work providing HIV prevention information to the gay community has been labelled "homosexual propaganda" and shut down.
It was very clear to me that, although foreigners like myself who are visiting Russia are not affected by this new law (and President Pig Putin has recently confirmed this), it is a very different story for those living inside the country. As Maria Maksakova told her fellow Russian MPs last month: "We are seeing extremely negative consequences as a result of this law, with the growth of hate crimes."
President Pig Putin asserts that this was not the intention, but it is undoubtedly the effect that this law has had by promoting misunderstanding and ignorance. In particular, it is very disappointing that the law explicitly links homosexuality with child sex abuse, which countless studies have shown to be conclusively wrong.
The people I met in Moscow were decent, kind, patriotic men and women who had no thought of forcing their sexuality on anyone. Whatever the intention of Russia's homosexuality and paedophilia propaganda laws, I am absolutely clear from my own personal experience that it is proving deeply dangerous to the LGBT community and deeply divisive to Russian society. I would welcome the opportunity to introduce President Putin to some Russians who deserve to be heard, and who deserve to be treated in their own country with the same respect and warm welcome that I received on my last visit.
Russia court to free Khodorkovsky's business partner
Platon Lebedev had been due for release in May but the supreme court ruled that his sentence should be reduced
Reuters in Moscow
theguardian.com, Thursday 23 January 2014 10.04 GMT
The former business partner of Russian former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was due to be released from prison early under a ruling by Russia's supreme court on Thursday.
Platon Lebedev and Khodorkovsky were sentenced to jail in 2005 after falling out with Pig Putin. The president pardoned Khodorkovsky last month and he was freed, but Lebedev did not seek a pardon and stayed in jail.
Lebedev had been due for release in May but the supreme court ruled that his sentence should be reduced and that he would be able to walk free on Friday.
It did not change a court order under which Lebedev and Khodorkovsky must pay 17bn roubles (£314m) in tax arrears – an obstacle to Khodorkovsky's return to Russia after leaving for Germany in December.
Olympics officials dismiss terror threats toward Sochi games
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 22, 2014 16:15 EST
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) Wednesday dismissed the latest perceived terror scare to the Sochi Winter Olympics after several Olympic Associations said that they had received a suspicious e-mail.
Federations from the United States, Britain, Italy, Germany, Hungary and Slovenia were among those that indicated they had received emails or letters with similar content, which were passed to the IOC security advisers for inspection.
In a swift reply, the IOC said: “We have been in close contact with Sochi 2014 on this matter and our line is as follows — the IOC takes security very seriously and passes on any credible information to the relevant security services.
“However, in this case it seems like the email sent to a number of NOCs contains no threat and appears to be a random message from a member of the public.”
IOC president Thomas Bach, in Rio to assess preparations for the 2016 Summer Games, also played down the threat.
“Security is always a matter of concern not just at the Olympic Games but at any big event.
“That is unfortunately the world we are living in.
“But we are very confident — we know that the Russian authorities with their many partners internationally are dong everything to organize the Games in a safe and secure way,” Bach said.
US Olympic Committee chief executive Scott Blackmun said his group had received the threat and forwarded it to law-enforcement agencies.
“The safety and security of Team USA is our top priority,” he said in a statement.
“As is always the case, we are working with the US Department of State, the local organizers and the relevant law enforcement agencies in an effort to ensure that our delegation and other Americans traveling to Sochi are safe.”
In Britain, the director of communications of the British Olympic Association, Darryl Seibel, confirmed that they had received a suspicious e-mail but had been told by the IOC that there was “nothing of substance” to it.
“In addition we have had our own experts take a look at this and they have responded in exactly the same way by stating that this is nothing credible.
“Organisations like ours receive correspondence of every type and it is not uncommon to come across something like this that lacks credibility.”
The Sochi resort in Russia is at the foot of the Caucasus mountains. Islamist insurgents based in North Caucasus republics such as Dagestan are seeking their own independent state and have vowed to disrupt the Games in an effort to undermine Russia’s President Putin.
Doku Umarov, the chief of militants in the Caucasus, threatened in July to stage attacks to stop the Games from taking place as planned from February 7-23.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Slovenia rejects U.S. extradition order and releases NASA hacking suspect
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 22, 2014 16:29 EST
A Slovenian higher court on Wednesday rejected an United States extradition request and released a Romanian citizen charged with hacking into NASA computers in 2006.
Maribor’s higher court rejected the extradition request taking into account that Romanian citizen Victor Faur could not be tried again for the same charges for which he had already been sentenced in Romania in 2008 to 16 months of suspended prison time and a 238,000 dollar (€176,000) fine.
“I want to thank the Slovenian authorities for taking the right decision and not bowing to the American pressure,” Faur told Slovenian journalists after being released in the northeastern town of Murska Sobota.
He added “I’m sure they (the US government) knew they had no chance of extradition yet they wanted to keep me here as long as possible.”
Slovenian police detained 34-year-old Faur during a routine road control in October and kept him until the local authorities decided on the US international arrest warrant.
The US authorities charged Faur with hacking into NASA computers and causing more than 1.5 million dollars of damage to the US space agency and of breaking into the computers of the US Navy and Department of Energy between November 2005 and September 2006.
Faur has admitted the intrusions but said he wanted to prove that many computers are vulnerable to IT attacks and maintained he did not try to obtain material for personal gain.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Are you opposed to fracking? Then you might just be a terrorist
By Nafeez Ahmed, The Guardian
Tuesday, January 21, 2014 16:08 EST
Over the last year, a mass of shocking evidence has emerged on the close ties between Western government spy agencies and giant energy companies, and their mutual interests in criminalising anti-fracking activists.
Activists tarred with the same brush
In late 2013, official documents obtained under freedom of information showed that Canada’s domestic spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), had ramped up its surveillance of activists opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline project on ‘national security’ grounds. The CSIS also routinely passed information about such groups to the project’s corporate architect, Calgary-based energy company, Enbridge.
The Northern Gateway is an $8 billion project to transport oil from the Alberta tar sands to the British Columbia coast, where it can be shipped to global markets. According to the documents a Canadian federal agency, the National Energy Board, worked with CSIS and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to coordinate with Enbridge, TransCanada, and other energy corporations in gathering intelligence on anti-fracking activists – despite senior police privately admitting they “could not detect a direct or specific criminal threat.”
Now it has emerged that former cabinet minister Chuck Strahl – the man appointed by Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper to head up the CSIS’ civilian oversight panel, the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) – has been lobbying for Enbridge since 2011.
But that’s not all. According to CBC News, only one member of Strahl’s spy watchdog committee “has no ties to either the current government or the oil industry.” For instance, SIRC member Denis Losier sits on the board of directors of Enbridge-subsidiary, Enbridge NB, while Yves Fortier, is a former board member of TransCanada, the company behind the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Counter-insurgency in the homeland
Investigative journalist Steve Horn reports that TransCanada has also worked closely with American law-enforcement and intelligence agencies in attempting to criminalise US citizens opposed to the pipeline. Files obtained under freedom of information last summer showed that in training documents for the FBI and US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), TransCanada suggested that non-violent Keystone XL protestors could be deterred using criminal and anti-terror statutes:
“… the language in some of the documents is so vague that it could also ensnare journalists, researchers and academics, as well.”
According to the Earth Island Journal, official documents show that TransCanada “has established close ties with state and federal law enforcement agencies along the proposed pipeline route.” But TransCanada is only one example of “the revolving door between state law enforcement agencies and the private sector, especially in areas where fracking and pipeline construction have become big business.”
This has had a tangible impact. In March last year, US law enforcement officials had infiltrated and spied on environmentalists attending a tar sands resistance camp in Oklahoma, leading to the successful pre-emptive disruption of their protest action.
Just last December, other activists in Oklahoma faced terror charges for draping an anti-fracking banner in the lobby of the offices housing US oil and gas company, Devon Energy. The two protestors were charged with carrying out a “terrorism hoax” for using gold glitter on their banner, some of which happened to scatter to the floor of the building – depicted by a police spokesman as a potentially “dangerous or toxic” substance in the form of a “black powder,” causing a panic.
But Suzanne Goldenberg reports a different account:
“After a few uneventful minutes, [the activists] Stephenson and Warner took down the banner and left the building – apologising to the janitor who came hurrying over with a broom. A few people, clutching coffee cups, wandered around in the lobby below, according to Stephenson. But she did not detect much of a response to the banner. There wasn’t even that much mess, she said. The pair had used just four small tubes of glitter on their two banners.”
The criminalisation of peaceful activism under the rubric of ‘anti-terrorism’ is an escalating trend linked directly to corporate co-optation of the national security apparatus. In one egregious example, thousands of pages of government records confirm how local US police departments, the FBI and the DHS monitored Occupy activists nationwide as part of public-private intelligence sharing with banks and corporations.
Anti-fracking activists in particular have come under increased FBI surveillance in recent years under an expanded definition of ‘eco-terrorism‘, although the FBI concedes that eco-terrorism is on the decline. This is consistent with US defence planning documents over the last decade which increasingly highlight the danger of domestic “insurgencies” due to the potential collapse of public order under various environmental, energy or economic crises.
In the UK, Scotland Yard’s National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit (which started life as the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit and later became the National Domestic Extremism Unit), has had a long record of equating the spectre of “domestic extremism” with “single-issue protests, such as animal rights, anti-war, anti-globalisation and anti-GM crops.” Apart from animal rights, these movements have been “overwhelmingly peaceful” points out George Monbiot.
This has not prevented the police unit from monitoring almost 9,000 Britons deemed to hold “radical political views,” ranging from “anti-capitalists” to “anti-war demonstrators.” Increasingly though, according to a Guardian investigation, the unit “is known to have focused its resources on spying on environmental campaigners, particularly those engaged in direct action and civil disobedience to protest against climate change.” Most recently, British police have gone so far as to conduct surveillance of Cambridge University students involved in social campaigns like anti-fracking, education, anti-fascism, and opposition to austerity, despite a lack of reason to suspect criminal activity.
This is no accident. Yesterday, senior Tory and ex-Cabinet minister Lord Deben, chairman of the UK government-sponsored Committee on Climate Change, characterised anyone suggesting that fracking is “devastatingly damaging” as a far-left “extremist,” holding “nonsensical” views associated with “Trotskyite” dogma. In contrast, he described “moderate” environmentalists as situated safely in the legitimate spectrum of a “broad range of consensus” across “all political parties.”
In other words, if you are disillusioned with the existing party political system and its approach to environmental issues, you are an extremist.
Deben’s comments demonstrate the regressive mindset behind the British government’s private collaboration with shale gas industry executives to “manage the British public’s hostility to fracking,” as revealed in official emails analysed by Damien Carrington.
The emails exposed the alarming extent to which government is “acting as an arm of the gas industry,” compounding earlier revelations that Department of Energy and Climate Change employees involved in drafting UK energy policy have been seconded from UK gas corporations.
Public opinion is the enemy
The latest polling data shows that some 47% of Britons “would not be happy for a gas well site using fracking to open within 10 miles of their home,” with just 14% saying they would be happy. By implication, the government views nearly half of the British public as potential extremists merely for being sceptical of shale gas.
This illustrates precisely why the trend-line of mass surveillance exemplified in the Snowden disclosures has escalated across the Western world. From North America to Europe, the twin spectres of “terrorism” and “extremism” are being disingenuously deployed by an ever more centralised nexus of corporate, state and intelligence power, to suppress widening public opposition to that very process of unaccountable centralisation.
But then, what’s new? Back in 1975, the Trilateral Commission - a network of some 300 American, European and Japanese elites drawn from business, banking, government, academia and media founded by Chase Manhattan Bank chairman David Rockerfeller – published an influential study called The Crisis of Democracy.
The report concluded that the problems of governance “stem from an excess of democracy” which makes government “less powerful and more active” due to being “overloaded with participants and demands.” This democratic excess at the time consisted of:
“… a marked upswing in other forms of citizen participation, in the form of marches, demonstrations, protest movements, and ’cause’ organizations… [including] markedly higher levels of self-consciousness on the part of blacks, Indians, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students, and women… [and] a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private… People no longer felt the same compulsion to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, or talents.”
The solution, therefore, is “to restore the prestige and authority of central government institutions,” including “hegemonic power” in the world. This requires the government to somehow “reinforce tendencies towards political passivity” and to instill “a greater degree of moderation in democracy.” This is because:
“… the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups… In itself, this marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic, but it has also been one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively.”
Today, such official sentiments live on in the form of covert psychological operations targeted against Western publics by the CIA, Pentagon and MI6, invariably designed to exaggerate threats to manipulate public opinion in favour of government policy.
As the global economy continues to suffocate itself, and as publics increasingly lose faith in prevailing institutions, the spectre of ‘terror’ is increasingly convenient tool to attempt to restore authority by whipping populations into panic-induced subordination.
Evidently, however, what the nexus of corporate, state and intelligence power fears the most is simply an “excess of democracy”: the unpalatable prospect of citizens rising up and taking power back.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed
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